Judy Collins turned 76 this year, but her voice still sounds as clear and pure as it did when she first sang Both Sides Now back in 1976. An undisputed American music icon, Collins was among the first to cover both Dylan and Cohen as well as bringing the work of Jacques Brel to a wider audience. Not to mention the fact that her spine-tingling version of Amazing Grace featured in the UK charts on eight separate occasions between 1970 and 1972, peaking at #5 and spending an incredible 75 weeks on the charts in total.
Although the folk music on which she cut her teeth has always been the mainstay of her work, she’s also recorded country numbers and, notably so with Sondheim’s Send In The Clowns, Broadway classics. She’s worked with a constellation of famous names, though whether she or they were the more humbled and awed by the collaborations is open to debate. On Strangers Again, her 34th studio album, she’s joined by friends old and new, revisiting old songs and offering up new ones, chosen either by herself or her guests.
Two numbers from her early years stand out in particular. Revisiting Ian Tyson’s folk-country evergreen Someday Soon, originally recorded in 1969 on Who Knows Where The Time Goes, here given a slightly more twangy guitar treatment with both piano and jazzy organ, she shares vocals with Jimmy Buffett, while, accompanied by piano and strings, she once again makes Send In The Clowns her own, this time in company with Don McLean.
Taking the other legendary names first, Jackson Browne joins her for Randy Newman’s Feels Like Home (Newman politely declined the invitation, saying his voice was no match for hers), Willie Nelson lends his distinctive tenor to Dave Carter’s When I Go, retaining the same banjo arrangement as the original, while Michael McDonald’s rich baritone provides a striking contrast to her light soprano on Miracle River, a song penned by his wife, Amy Holland. Another friend from the old days, James Taylor is represented by a version of his call for an end to sectarian killings, Belfast To Boston, a soulful duet with Marc Cohn.
Another composer who’s loomed large in Collins’ repertoire is Leonard Bernstein and it’s his Make Our Garden Grow from Candide that Jeff Bridges chose when he was asked to come aboard for the project, delivering a lovely, strings-swathed performance far removed from his musical comfort zone. From a similar musical arena comes Welsh star Aled Jones who duets on one of the newer songs in the collection, Stars In My Eyes, a number Collins sings as the theme to the yet to be released true story romance Drawing Home.
The last of the familiar names also has a big screen musical connection, Academy Award-winner Glen Hansard joining Collins for the album’s final track, his slow-swaying self-penned tender love and devotion Races.
Also contributing one of his own compositions is New Yorker Ari Hest, whose voice and wistfully yearning title track opens the album, as does the reedy-voiced Norwegian indie folk singer-songwriter Thomas Dybdahl with the hushed, puttering percussion and piano backed From Grace.
Although there’s no Dylan here, there is a reminder that Collins was the first to cover a song by Leonard Cohen (then still a poet), as she’s joined by the trebly tones of rising star Bhi Bhiman for yet another – and scintillating – cover of Hallelujah.
An interpreter of others’ work rather than a writer herself (though as both My Father and Born To The Breed show, she’s no slouch in that department), Collins knows how to pick her material, and this album also serves reminder that she knows how to pick her vocal partners too. However, you can’t avoid noticing that they’re all men, the only female duet I can recall her doing being with Joan Baez on Diamonds and Rust for 2010’s Paradise album (and which is included on the deluxe edition along with Steven Stills duet Last Thing On My Mind from the same album and, one I suspect most Collins fans have never heard, When Your Eyes Close, recorded with Manchester indie outfit Puressence on their Solid State Recital). Perhaps it might be something to consider as a companion piece, all suggestions welcome.
Review by: Mike Davies
Out Now via Cleopatra Records
Order via Amazon