When Judy Collins released last year’s duets album, Strangers Again, the title track, featured her with Bronx-born singer- songwriter Ari Hest. The pair had met backstage at a show and forged a friendship that saw them performing one off duets at various shows and Hest joining her to duet on his own The Fire for her 2014 Live In Ireland album, but this was their first studio recording together.
It was not to be the last, Silver Skies Blue marks the first time in her lengthy career that Collins has made an entire album with another artist (her soaring pure high tones complementing Hest’s tenor), but also the first recording of songs sung with her co-writer.
It’s not all new material, two numbers (the skittering The Weight and the dusty, brushed drums Americana of Aberdeen) come from past Hest albums and the albums ends (save for the bonus of Strangers Again) with a new version of her wistfully melancholic Home Before Dark, originally featured on 1990’s Fires In Eden. The others, however, are all Hest-Collins collaborations. The first up being the acoustic strummed march beat Drifting Away, a mid-tempo song that fully captures the languid mood of its title, this, in turn, followed by the album’s most uptempo number, the piano-backed I Choose Love, which has a very Jackson Browne feel to it.
The title track, their voices weaving together, is a characteristic folk-infused Collins number with tumbling chords and lyrics about the healing and inspirational power of love (“When the noise is all that’s there in your poor embattled mind, I will touch you on the heart, so your body you can find and you’ll turn around the see me”) while Slow Burn is another relationship number, here one rekindled after many years with Hest singing counterverses to Collins’ lead.
This, in turn, is followed by the equally relationship-themed, verse trading and sharing Let You In with its laid back electric piano, hand percussion and shaker groove. By contrast, although Collins’ is the dominant voice, the slow building, politically charged Run is very much a Hest song, a refusal to give in to the darkness, however much you want to hide from it (“There are those that I believe have courage fit to lead. But they say the damage has been done and that all that’s left to do Is hope and pray for miracles”) with its defiant chorus of “There’s more that I can do. I won’t run”.
Likewise, built around a military drum beat, acoustic guitar and accordion, the waltzing Elena with its French café ambience sketches a portrait of a mother working all hours directing traffic in a sweltering heat to make ends meet, with her three kids “all drawn to darkness, futures in doubt” and she wonders “how they’ll find water in the merciless drought” of the urban jungle.
With its pirate imagery, the remaining new song, the Secret Harbor, also sees a writing credit for pianist Russell Walden who, naturally provides accompaniment on a dreamy number that has the same show feel as her classic reading of Send In The Clowns. Sondheim should write a musical for it. Strangers Again saw Collins receive some of best reviews and biggest sales in years; this should effortlessly add to the tally.
Silver Skies Blue is Out now