The history of popular music is filled with stories of triumph and tragedy. Among the latter, no story is more tragic than that of Judee Sill. After a difficult childhood which found her turning to drugs and crime, Sill found solace in songwriting. Her light folk-rock style became known as the “Laurel Canyon” sound. She became the first artist ever signed to the brand new Asylum Records in the early ’70s, and toured as an opening act for David Crosby and Graham Nash.
Sill’s self-titled first album was released in 1971, and less than two years later, in the spring of 1973, she followed it with the album Heart Food. Both were critically acclaimed. Neither met with any commercial success. Following the failure of her second album to find an audience, Judee Sill disappeared from the music scene.
Sill has remained largely forgotten, a footnote in the history of southern California music, but there have been those who have tried to keep her name alive for many years. Among them is noted producer Jim O’Rourke, who mixed a collection of Sill’s unreleased songs. Warren Zevon recorded a cover of Sill’s most well known song, “Jesus Was a Crossmaker,” for his 1995 album Mutineer, and current Seattle sensations Fleet Foxes play Sill’s “Crayon Angels” in their live set. Her two Asylum albums were released as a double-CD set with bonus material in 2005, leading to a reassessment of her career.
This week, the indie label American Dust has released Crayon Angel: A Tribute to the Music of Judee Sill. The 15-track album includes covers of some of Sill’s most enduring songs by roster of some of the leading lights, and lesser knowns, of independent music. As is almost always the case with tribute albums, Crayon Angel is a hit-or-miss affair, succeeding when the artists allow the strength of Sill’s songs to emerge, and failing utterly when the artists try to make it all about themselves. These songs don’t need reinterpretation. Mostly they just need to be heard by an audience who are unfamiliar with Sill.
Marissa Nadler & Black Hole Infinity, what have you done to my favorite Judee Sill song, “The Kiss”? You should be ashamed right down to your post-modern, navel-gazing shoes. I have provided a video of Sill performing the song on the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1973 to show what a sublime song it is, and what a mess you’ve made of it.
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The big news is that in addition to the cover songs, the album includes two new songs written by Judee Sill. They are new in the sense that sheet music for the songs existed, but there are no original recordings. Without Sill herself for reference, Beth Orton does a beautiful job with the hypnotic “Reach For the Sky.” Bill Callahan does well tackling the other newly-discovered song, the slow-burning “Like A Rainbow.”
Canadian songwriter Ron Sexsmith can always be counted on to deliver the goods, and he does just that on the album-opening title track. There’s an ethereal version of “Waterfall” from Grizzly Bear’s Daniel Rossen that also shines, and Meg Baird provides a nice rendition of “When the Bridegroom Comes,” backed by a phalanx of trumpets. There’s an effective update on the southern California sound on the Bye Bye Blackbirds version of “There’s a Rugged Road,” and PG6 closes the album with a lovely cover of “Til Dreams Come True”.
Judee Sill was known for drawing powerfully on Christian themes in her work. Sadly, her faith could not sustain her, and her dreams never did come true. After dropping out of the music scene, she returned to drugs, her need for opiates exacerbated by several car accidents that left her in terrible pain. On November 23, 1979, Judee Sill died of a drug overdose in North Hollywood, California.