This is a song by Leonard Cohen, but I’m talking about it as performed by Jennifer Warnes. It may not even be Warnes’ best cover of a Cohen tune, but it’s good enough to be any day’s song, and the recording is special.

Famous Blue Raincoat

Many years ago, Jennifer Warnes released Famous Blue Raincoat, a collection of Cohen songs, and sold lots. It’s a fantastic record; Warnes inhabits Cohen’s tunes completely. Which is a neat trick, since she’s got a big, creamy voice as wide as a river and smooth as satin, while Cohen’s voice is exactly none of those things. And I love almost all of Cohen’s albums; but this is very special stuff.

It’s tough picking just one of these songs for -of-the-day service. Probably my favorite is the title tune; when Jennifer sings “Thanks (pause) for the trouble you took (pause) from her eyes, I thought it was there (pause) for good…” — stone would melt.

But I’m going with Joan of Arc for a couple of reasons. The first is the magisterial, arching video performance linked below. The second is…

Audiophilia · This is one of my major vices. I’m a worshipper of well-produced audio; there are blog manifestoes here and here. Anyhow, Famous Blue Raincoat is that rare thing, an audiophile fave that also has great music on it. If you go to an audio trade show and visit a suite where they’re showing a hundred thousand dollars worth of gear, it wouldn’t be surprising at all to hear Warnes singing Cohen.

In particular, it wouldn’t be surprising to hear Joan of Arc. Just on this song, Leonard drops by to sing it as a duet with Jennifer. It’s pretty awesome, and the way their voices are recorded, flowing around and over each other, is super awesome. Which is to say, if you find yourself in the presence of something that claims to be a good audio system, you might want to put this on and see what you think. Warning: This could lead to an expensive hobby.

The song · It’s a dialog between Joan and the fire that’s burning her at the stake. Which, while tragic, isn’t as morbid as it sounds. Leonard Cohen is good at words not just music, and finds the triumph in the tragedy. Also the tune is memorable, the arrangement is masterful, and did I mention it sounds great?

This is part of the Song of the Day series (background).

Links · Spotify playlist. Joan of Arc on Amazon, iTunes, Spotify. Now, as for live video, pull up a chair, find yourself a hanky, and check out this live performance, with a full orchestra and total commitment, in Belgium in 1992. It turns out to have been a big enough hit that they put it on the 20th-anniversary edition of the album (cover pictured above) and you can get it separately: Spotify, iTunes, Amazon.

Now, I’ve probably offended some Cohen fans (like my brother for example) by gushing over the Warnes performance. For them, here are performances by Mr Cohen both younger and older, both as duets, with fine female singers. Also, a high-intensity performance (no video) by Joan Baez. But my heart belongs to Jennifer’s.


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February 05, 2018
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