Exploring Music and Popular Song

A Blue Ear Music column
by Stephen Wacker

February 2, 2002

••• In Search of a Powerful Voice

An acquaintance of mine recently bemoaned the lack of music from powerful female singers on the popular music scene these days. And after trying to name some, I found myself agreeing with her; it's been a while since I've heard anything that really grabbed me.

There's the diva contingent, of course, but most of them seem to be victims of their own hype machines as much as anything. Some are better than others at controlling their careers, but give me soul and substance over hype and image any day, thank you very much. As for the angst-driven wailers and their technique of ending every other phrase with a half-sob, let's just say it gets tiresome after a while.

k.d. lang--goodnessgracioussakesalive, what a voice--hasn't released a studio album since 1992, although she did release a live album last year. Joan Osborne is another incredibly powerful singer, but her last album is more than a year old. I've written previously about Shawn Colvin, whose work I admire a great deal, but I think of her voice as more intimate than powerful. I've also written about Jane Siberry, whose voice can soar with the best of them, but I confess I'm not too familiar with her most recent work. I must remedy that...

And then I heard about a new independent release by Jennifer Warnes, whose voice has enchanted me ever since I first heard her Famous Blue Raincoat--Songs of Leonard Cohen album from 1986. Warnes is one of the few singers whose work I'll buy without hearing it beforehand. This is a woman who's certainly not about hype, and to say that of someone who has been around the music business as long as she has is a testimony to her character as well as her skills as a singer.

There's a directness to Warnes' voice, a warmth and honesty that's very appealing. It's also powerful, but not in the classic sense like Bessie Smith, or Ethel Merman, or Patsy Cline, or Grace Slick, or k.d. lang; there's a thinness, a sweetness, a fragility to it that could easily be mistaken for weakness in an artist of lesser stature. The power in Warnes' voice comes, I think, from the straightforward way she communicates the essence of a song.

The title track of The Well is co-written by Warnes and Doyle Bramhall, who also plays guitar on the track. I knew this album was going to grow on me when I heard its opening lines:

We can make it, I know we can
Only time will tell
Let's take a walk down to the water
Let's go to the well

Hopeful signs are scarce these days, and I have to say that hearing Warnes' voice sing these opening lines made me feel just a bit more optimistic. The following lines struck a deeper chord, with their observation so personal yet universal:

Sometimes my heart feels like a dandelion
seeds scattered in a restless wind
and nothin' to show for my life and time but
innocent wonder in the face of thunder
Feelin' like something is about to begin

Something about to begin, indeed. Let us hope so.

The second track really stands out, not only because of the perfection of its arrangement but also because it's such a great showcase for Warnes' voice (although it could also be due to the fact that it's winter and I'm writing from Seattle).

Naomi Neville's It's Raining is based on a fairly standard-sounding set of blues chord changes, except for a couple of tweaks here and there. "It's raining so hard" is the opening line of three of the song's four verses, which is certainly not the most insightful or poetic lyric I've ever heard. But Warnes delivers it with a pathos so sweet that it draws the listener in to hear more:

...looks like it's gonna rain all night
this is the time
I'd love to be holdin' you tight

...it's really comin' down
sittin' by my window
watchin' the rain fall to the ground

...it brings back memories
of the time
that you were here with me

There's no arc of a story line in this song; it's more about the communication of a feeling. The last verse is similar to the others, although it starts a bit differently:

I've got the blues so bad
I can hardly catch my breath
The harder it rains
the worse, the worse it gets
This is the time
I'd love to be holdin' you tight
but I guess I'll just go crazy tonight

Another thing I like about The Well is Warnes' willingness to go after songs that one usually wouldn't associate with her voice. For example, I never imagined her covering anything by Tom Waits, but she does a great job with Invitation to the Blues, a classic Waits lament about a serious case of waitress infatuation. Warnes' reading really works, which is somewhat amazing considering Waits' persona and gravel-in-a-cement-mixer voice. And she achieves an effect that I typically associate with Waits: an acknowledgement of the pang of desire, delivered with a knowing wink. Warnes' supporting cast provides a great sense of atmosphere on this track, especially Lee Thornburg's muted trumpet.

Warnes also covers a song that some might consider maudlin, but I confess I'm a sucker for her rendition of And So It Goes by Billy Joel. I don't usually think of Joel as a songwriter who explores the tender side of romantic longing, but this is a very touching lyric. The honesty and transparency of Warnes' voice makes these words ring true and clear, as if she were speaking directly to a loved one under a full moon and a blanket of stars:

And this is why my eyes are closed
it's just as well for all I've seen
and so it goes and so it goes
and you're the only one who knows
So I would choose to be with you
that's if the choice were mine to make
but you can make decisions, too
and you can have this heart to break

Jennifer Warnes is an inspiration, a graceful singer of style and taste who is also skilled at finding songs that suit her magnificent voice. Many of us have long suspected that the machinery of pop music has lost its ability to find the gems among the rhinestones. If it can't recognize a singer like Warnes, what other proof does one need?

The Well by Jennifer Warnes and Doyle Bramhall, © Warnes Music (BMI),
Bramhall Music (BMI) (administered by CMI).

It's Raining by Naomi Neville, © EMI/Unart Musicorp (BMI).

And So It Goes by Billy Joel, © Joelsongs, Inc. (BMI).

© 2002 by Stephen Wacker. All rights reserved.

Stephen Wacker writes about popular music from the upper left-hand corner of the United States. He listens to most everything, but his writing focuses primarily on the work of American, British, and Canadian songwriters.

Contact him or read some of his other work at his Web site:

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