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Judith Owen: redisCOVERed
by George Graham
(Twanky Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/7/2018)
With the decades-long emphasis on singer-songwriters, pop albums of all covers are not a very frequent occurance. Some have been by veteran pop stars who tried to make the move into being a jazz singer or crooner. Most of those turn out to be rather forgettable or downright embarrassing. This time we have an artist who is a notable singer-songwriter who nevertheless, has included some interesting covers throughout her recording career. Now Judith Owen has released a full album of very distinctive remakes of other other people’s songs called redisCOVERed.
Judith Owen was born in London, though considers herself Welsh. She grew up in a musical family and studied classical music, but she writes of her musical dyslexia which she said prevented her from reading music easily enough to play classical piano, and instead was imitating the pieces she heard, but adding her own variations. That led to her improvising and creating original music. In her liner notes to the new recording, she described playing four-hour gigs in bars in her teens and early twenties to make money while in school and having to play popular songs for the clientele. She tried to slip in some originals, but mainly had to stick with pop songs. She adds “So to do this without losing my mind, I’d find my own truth in re-inventing them musically and emotionally.”
So that thread has been woven into her musical career over her recordings, 12 albums so far, in the UK, and then in the US, where she now lives with her husband, and occasional musical collaborator the comedic actor and musician Harry Shearer, of Spinal Tap and The Simpsons fame. Ms. Owen shares a vocal quality with some of the great British folk singers like the late Sandy Denny and June Tabor, though Ms. Owen, being a pianist, tends toward more of a jazz sensibility in her arrangements, which are often sultry and yet with a restrained cool, which she applies to both her originals and her covers.
The new album came about, she says, by requests from people who have heard her perform live, and asking if she would make a set of those re-interpretations. So that led to this new album, her first without original music.
On redisCOVERed Ms. Owen casts her net wide for songs that one would not expect to hear in such settings, including the hip-hop of Drake, the pop of Ed Sheeran and Justin Timberlake, the disco of Donna Summer and Wild Cherry, the introspective songs of one her biggest heroes Joni Mitchell, the grunge of Soundgarden, a song from the musical Grease, a remake of a remake of a metal classic by Deep Purple, and a Beatles song.
It seems that her rule was the more unlikely the song was for this kind or laid-back treatment, the better. And in almost every case, she casts a new light on the songs, and in many instances brings out the lyrics that might have been hard to make out in the heavily produced original versions.
She is joined by a fairly small group, with veteran bassist Leland Sklar, known for his work with Jackson Browne, a being the most frequent contributor, along with percussionist Pedro Segundo who often plays percussion other than conventional drums.
The album opens with the Drake song Hotline Bling. Ms. Owen writes in her notes that she asked her husband for suggestion for a song would be “bizarre” for her to cover, and he quickly game up with this one. Ms. Owen takes the cliched pop song into an entirely different territory musically, while focusing on the lyrics of unrequited love. <<>>
The Ed Sheeran song Shape of You is given a kind of early pre-soul rhythm and blues approach inspired by the musical environment of her current home, New Orleans, with the horn arrangement. <<>>
Black Hole Sun written by the late Chris Cornell of Soundgarden is given a treatment partly in a jazzy 5/4 time – she says she was inspired by Take Five – to provide a huge contrast to the dark lyrics about depression. They result is one of the highlights of the album <<>>
Ms. Owen includes two Joni Mitchell songs from the 1980s and 1990s, when Ms. Mitchell’s music was somewhat similar in sound to what Ms. Owen is doing. RedisCOVERed includes a song that has increasing relevance these days, Cherokee Louise from Joni Mitchell’s 1991 album Night Ride Home was written about a friend who suffered from sexual abuse. Ms. Owen’s version is somber and includes an appearance by jazz trumpeter Nicholas Payton. <<>>
Disco queen Donna Summer’s hit Hot Stuff is another great example of taking a pop song into entirely different territory, while putting more focus on the lyrics. Ms. Owen’s version is sultry and interestingly, does not have any regular drums, but mainly light hand percussion, a total contrast to the driving beat of a disco tune. <<>>
From the musical Grease comes the song Summer Nights, which Ms. Owen does as a kind of torch song. She writes that she relates to the lyrics recalling dealing with an unfaithful lover in her youth. <<>>
Ms. Owen re-does a song she has covered before, Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water, which she recorded on her 2005 album Lost and Found, and the arrangement is similar but with some added strings. Still, the way she reinvents this early heavy metal song is stunning. <<>>
The Beatles song she covers is Blackbird and her arrangement is perhaps less surprising than it is heartfelt. <<>>
The album ends with a solo version of the old standard written in 1931 Dream a Little Dream of Me, which she calls a bookend to the opening track Hotline Bling. <<>>
Judith Owen’s new twelfth album redisCOVERed is a great example of a creative singer-songwriter applying her talents and previous experience to reinventing other people’s songs. The choice of material is creative and in a way whimsical, with sultry jazzy treatments of disco and hip-hop songs, for example. Her vocals, as usual, are nonpareil, she plays her own piano throughout, and her small group of added musicians keeps things intimate. The production is thoroughly tasteful and understated.
Our audio quality grade is close to an A, with the sound clean and warm, and virtually nothing to distract from the performances.
For some veteran performers, doing an album of all covers can be seen as bad fit or a conscious attempt to connect with older audiences. Ms. Owen has been doing these creative covers as part of her shows throughout her career, and the new album is excellent distillation of that. She writes in her booklet notes that her family motto is Ego Non Karaoke or “I Don’t Do Karaoke.” Well said.
(c) Copyright 2018 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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