Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Darrell Scott - Modern Hymns


I’m a little late with this one; it came out last summer. So I justify reviewing now for two reasons: first, this blog did not exist when the album was released; and second, because , if you weren’t aware of the album from when it was released, I need to fix that.

Darrell Scott has written a number of songs that were country hits for other artists. With Modern Hymns, he has decided to record an album consisting entirely of covers of songs that influenced him. By now, this has been a recipe for a slew of albums, both sublime and mundane. So I wasn’t looking for anything special necessarily, but I was willing to give this a chance.

So I put the album in the player, and the first track, All The Lovely Ladies by Gordon Lightfoot began. I can hear that Darrell Scott is a Nashville writer. The song is pleasant, the arrangement is tasteful and tasty, not overproduced. Scott has a voice that reminds me of Loudon Wainwright, without the whine. I can definitely stand to listen to more of this, to see what else Scott might be up to.

The second track began, and my jaw dropped in amazement. The song is Urge For Going by Joni Mitchell. Mitchell is one of my idols, and you don’t mess with her. In Mitchell’s original, Urge For Going is a slow lament for a departing lover. Darrell Scott renders the song as a bluegrass rave-up, and the emphasis shifts to the power of the urge in the title. And works spectacularly well. It does exactly what a good cover should do; it reveals a level of meaning that was not to be found in the original.

I wondered, while enjoying different flavors of country, whether Scott could do other things. And then I heard James. A cover of Pat Metheny, this was either going to win me over or be the first outright flop on the album. Years ago, I heard the Pat Metheny Group perform this live. Scott has rendered the tune in a style that reminds me somewhat of David Grisman, and gives part of the original guitar part to singer Moira Smiley. Once again, it all works.

So Modern Hymns shows that Darrell Scott has an obvious love for country music, combined with the instincts to avoid its excesses. Scott displays a range that extends well beyond country. And he shows a wonderful imagination in his interpretations.

There is one more jaw-dropper on the album: Joan of Arc, by Leonard Cohen. Cohen originally recorded the song for just acoustic guitar and one voice. Then, on a 1994 live recording, Cohen added a second voice. Done this way, the song is a duet between Joan of Arc, dieing on the stake, and the male voice singing the part of the fire consuming her. Starting from there, Scott adds a third part, a chorus of multitracked angelic voices calling Joan of Arc to Heaven. Scott also fills out the instrumental arrangement, including a string quartet that really works well. This was the only song on the album that thrilled me, without my knowing the original beforehand.

Throughout, the backing musicians are excellent. I was particularly looking forward to hearing the bass playing of Danny Thompson, who first heard in the original lineup of Pentangle. I was not disappointed.

This was the first time I ever heard Darrell Scott. I will look forward to hearing more.

Darrell Scott: Urge For Going

Darrell Scott: Joan of Arc