Listen Up: Wednesday, August 18, 2004
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A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
k.d. lang

Hymns of the 49th Parallel (Nonesuch Records)

By Jimmy Fowler

Some critics have complained that k.d. lang’s new album of Canadian covers, Hymns of the 49th Parallel, is listless and uninventive. They are partially correct, but they’re also missing an important point. During her current North American tour, lang has declared onstage that her intention wasn’t to rethink the material but to showcase the lyrics and melodies as starkly as possible in the hopes of creating a kind of national Canadian songbook. Fair enough, but producers lang and Ben Mink needed to do something fresh with Joni Mitchell’s overly familiar “A Case of You” and the kitschy poetics of Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire” to help make these tunes sound more than gratuitous.

The choices seem superfluous, because lang knows that both writers have a long back list of worthy, less covered songs. She also includes a piano-tinkling version of Mitchell’s ode to diffident love, “Jericho,” and manages to wring something close to profundity from Cohen’s sublimely goofy “Hallelujah.” “She tied you to a kitchen chair / She broke your throne and she cut your hair” must be difficult to sing without giggling, but lang’s warm, confident colors make Cohen’s version of the David and Bathsheba tale sound canonical. She doesn’t rescue Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” as much as reveal what a shitty lyricist he can be, through her clear, concise tones.

Another overlooked point about the album: the word “Hymns” in the title is just as important as the “49th Parallel” of the composers’ birthplace. Most of the songs here have overt, recurring, or subtly allusive Judeo-Christian themes. Jane Siberry’s beautiful “The Valley” is arguably a riff on the 23rd Psalm, and when lang slides into a yearning falsetto, wondering if the world “Will bring you joy / Or will it take it away,” she achieves eye-glistening poignancy despite the shellacked strings on a separate recorded track. Hardcore lang fans should rejoice in the vocal restraint she displays on 49th Parallel: She’s more likely to end a line with a short, breathy tremolo than ski-lift up the scale with her patented casual majesty. It’s some of her cleanest interpretive work since 1997’s underrated Drag. Too bad that much of the material is middling to unfortunate.


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