Posted at www.ocregister.com on Thursday, Aug. 9, 2007
A 20th anniversary reissue of 'Famous Blue Raincoat,' her album of songs by Leonard Cohen, is treasure.
By ROBERT KINSLER
Special to the Register
There was a fateful series of events that led Jennifer Warnes to record her 1987 masterwork "Famous Blue Raincoat." The collection of songs by singer-poet Leonard Cohen was rightfully included in many critics' top 10 lists at the end of that year, but had long been out of print until it was reissued in an exceptional 20th anniversary edition by Shout! Factory on Aug. 7.
Warnes, a two-time Grammy winner who grew up in Anaheim and Fullerton, recently talked by phone from her home in Los Angeles about the long-awaited re-release of the tour de force, which has been beautifully remastered from the original analog tapes and also includes four previously unreleased tracks.
"This record, on one hand it's the recording of a friendship that has lasted until now (more than 35 years)," explained Warnes, 60, who began working with Cohen as a backup singer in the early 1970s.
"On the other hand, it's an interpreter's art … what does this say about the interpretive arts that a woman can get inside a man."
When asked about the challenge of selecting which Cohen songs to tackle, Warnes explained "some of the lyrics fit a woman better," while also noting that some of the songs just proved to be a better fit with her style of singing.
In addition to completely reworking Cohen-penned songs such as "First We Take Manhattan," "Bird on a Wire" and the exquisite title track, the album features the confessional ballad "Song of Bernadette" with lyrics co-written by Cohen and Warnes. Clocking in at eight minutes, "Joan of Arc" is a wonderful and introspective work on which Cohen's emotive baritone and Warnes' soprano are featured in a pairing that is pure magic.
The critical acclaim that greeted the release of "Famous Blue Raincoat" two decades ago also paved the way for a new appreciation of Cohen, whose 1988 album "I'm Your Man" revisited several of the selections on Warnes' tribute that was released a year before.
Audiophiles will quickly note the sound of the album is luxurious without being over-produced.
"One of the mistakes of (some recordings) is they leave in a lot of stuff that the listener has to work really hard to hear. And I got tired of having to work hard to hear things," she explained.
"Maybe the horns were covering up the vocals; especially in the '70s and '80s. The recording techniques were you just threw a bunch of stuff on there and hoped people liked it. And Roscoe (Roscoe Beck and Warnes co-produced the album) and I shared the same desire that we would personally do all the work of listening so our listeners could sit down in an easy chair and luxuriate."
In addition to members of the touring band that Cohen was using during that time, "Famous Blue Raincoat" also features guest appearances by legendary guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan, whose distinctive style of blues guitar is heard on a scorching "First We Take Manhattan."
"Stevie was a friend of Roscoe," explained Warnes, recalling that Beck befriended Vaughan when the guitarist moved to Austin.
"So Roscoe wanted Stevie on it and when Stevie was playing at the Grammys; after the Grammy Awards were over he came over to the studio and did that without ever having heard the song before. He did it live."
With the re-release of "Famous Blue Raincoat," it's clear that there may be a welcome spotlight aimed at Warnes. Despite the commercial success of her 1982 duet with Joe Cocker on "Up Where We Belong" for the film "An Officer and a Gentleman" in 1982, as well as "(I've Had) The Time of My Life" recorded with Bill Medley for "Dirty Dancing" in 1987, wonderful albums such as 1992's "The Hunter" and 2001's "The Well" have been overlooked.
She continues to be a sought-after vocalist and is featured on a number of recent releases, including on Chris Hillman's latest disc "The Other Side," a duet with Jorge Calderon of "Keep Me In Your Heart" for a Warren Zevon tribute and guest vocals on Jackson Browne's "Going Home" album. Her most recent recording is a solo performance of "Blue Mountains of Mexico," a track that will appear on "The Gift: Tribute to Ian Tyson" this year.
Of "Famous Blue Raincoat," Warnes offers up the perfect single-sentence review: "We were in one of those vortex moments where everything was falling into place."
For more information on "Famous Blue Raincoat," visit www.shoutfactory.com. For more details about all of Warnes' recordings, visit www.JenniferWarnes.com.