Final Fantasy – “The Donor”
It’s remarkable to think how many musicians we may be overlooking at any given time. In the past decade, there ‘s been revitalized interest in the works of musicians who by sheer misfortune or personal tragedy never enjoyed the success they deserved in their youth. Nick Drake is the most obvious example of this, although some artists, through the interest of famous and powerful friends, enjoy a late bloom in the number of adoring fans. Devendra Banhart’s music is indebted to Vashti Bunyan’s style, but she has in turn enjoyed a late revival with the help of younger musicians who have introduced new generations of listeners to her music. Kath Bloom, who played a brand of avant-garde folk and blues in the seventies, found fame through Richard Linklater, who featured her music in 1995′s Before Sunrise.
The past decade has been a healthy time of rediscovery, although sometimes our attention arrives too late and we can only bestow our appreciation posthumously. This is the case for the tragic Judee Sill, although I use “tragic” without pity since she has, during what was a short career, left a great body of work that very few could hope to accomplish. Sill was a talented musician from a troubled family, estranged from her brother and father early-on in her life. As a teen, she drifted from jail cells to reform school, experiencing heroin addiction and trouble with the law. Learning the gospel keyboard encouraged her to kick junk, and she found her calling in songwriting and playing music. In the West Coast, she met Graham Nash and David Crosby, with whom she produced several songs for other acts. Disheartened by lack of commercial success with her solo records, she left the music scene in the seventies and disappeared, only to reemerge in the news with her 1979 death by a cocaine and codeine overdose.
Sill had a virtuosic ear for music and meshed baroque metric forms and suites with redemptive folk lyrics, a complexity that likely went unappreciated in her time. When listening to her songs, you can perceive her largeness of spirit, a reaching-out to the redemptive qualities of a well-worn song. At 35, her life and career ended tragically short, although one wonders how much external factors like commercial success could have changed the course of her life. When singing, she expressed her intense personal hurt, but out of this despair Sill made powerfully demanding pieces of music like 1971′s “Jesus Was A Cross Maker” and “Crayon Angels.”
Crayon Angel: A Tribute to the Music of Judee Sill is an attempt to attract new listeners to Sill’s back catalog, similar to the cover treatment produced for Kath Bloom’s Loving Takes This Course. The roster features Ron Sexsmith, Beth Orton, Daniel Rossen (of Grizzly Bear) and Frida Hyvönen, all of whom reproduce Sill’s music in their particular acoustic palettes. They are faithful renditions to the original material, although Rossen’s cover of “Waterfall” could very well be a Grizzly Bear song. Final Fantasy’s Owen Pallett reinterprets “The Donor” with pixelated keyboard and choir boy tenor, a version that takes on melodramatic turns befitting Sill’s baroque stylings. The more interesting covers include Sweden’s Nicolai Dunger singing “Soldier of the Heart” like Jeff Buckley over a jazz piano and Los Angeles’ Princeton giving “Down Where the Valleys Are Low” the Afropop treatment. Not all the songs here are memorable, and at best, this tribute record is an uneven compilation of covers that range from faithful to unimaginative to perplexing. Still, it’s hard to shut down these efforts to revive interest in Sill, who deserves the kind of posthumous honors we’ve given Nick Drake. Some may cringe at the prospect, but who knows, maybe a spot on a Wes Anderson soundtrack may do the trick.