JUDEE SILL Heart Food (4 Men With Beards)

Somewhere in a too-brief life haunted by family tragedy, drug addiction, jail time and prostitution, Californian Judee Sill managed to record two albums for the Asylum label, of which “Heart Food”, originally released in 1973, is the second. (A third collection, “Dreams Come True”, has recently been pieced together from demos, rehearsals and home recordings by superfan/Sonic Youth member/Wilco producer/solo artist Jim O’Rourke.)

I think the best, although still grossly inadequate, way I can describe “Heart Food” is that it sounds like “For The Roses”-era Joni Mitchell backed by a version of The Byrds caught exactly halfway between “The Notorious Byrd Brothers” and “Sweetheart Of The Rodeo”. Or, less theoretically, it’s folk-rock/country-rock fired with a gently evangelical glow and smudged with the delirium of romance. The impression is hardly undermined by a gaggle of session talent that includes Doug Dillard, Buddy Emmons, Chris Ethridge, Jim Gordon, Bobbye Hall, Gloria Jones and Spooner Oldham. Henry Lewy co-produces, and God scores a Special Thanks To credit.

Opener “There’s A Rugged Road” immediately entrances. Sill’s honeyed tones sound like Karen Carpenter with too much perspective, whilst the countrified clip-clopping percussion, steel guitar and fiddle backing tries to anchor it somewhere else entirely. Andy Partridge of XTC rates the gorgeous, swooping “The Kiss” the most beautiful song ever recorded. I’d say that “The Pearl”, which immediately follows it, is even finer, dripping delicious, uplifting melody, plinking banjo and a spit ‘n’ sawdust string arrangement over the painfully irony of the lyrics: “I’ve been lookin’ for someone/Who sells truth by the pound/Then I saw the dealer and his friend/Arrive, but their gifts looked grim”….shiver. “Down Where The Valleys Are Low” is a kind of celestial doowop, “The Vigilante” an outlaw spiritual (or a spiritual outlaw, perhaps), “Soldier Of The Heart” being Little Feat getting religion.

If “When The Bridegroom Comes” opens with the kind of default piano motif employed by every other singer songwriter during the early 1970s, it soon blossoms into a hymn simultaneously biblical and utterly sensual. Clouds gather during the eight minute closer “The Donor”, which sounds almost like The Swingle Singers grappling with Gorecki until the storm breaks with the exultant mantra “Kyrie eleison” (helpfully translated in the lyric sheet as “Lord have mercy”).

Wow. Very wow. If you sought out and adored the work that other lost Californian songstress, Linda Perhacs, prepare yourself for something yet more potent in “Heart Food”. And if my ears are caressed by a more heartfelt release or reissue this year I’ll consider them doubly blessed.

JUDEE SILL Judee Sill (Water)

My first, and lasting, impressions of Judy Sill’s 1971 debut – the first album to be released on the Asylum label – were that it doesn’t have the cohesion and maturity of her second (and, tragically, final) full-length, “Heart Food”. There’s a trove of lovely music here, the baroque Brian Wilson-esque arrangements betraying a richness and ambition that contrasts strongly with the work of her stoic, hairshirted contemporaries – but her quasi-religious, mystical lyrics are even more in evidence, which can be somewhat off-putting at times.

The album takes flight with the Graham Nash-produced “Jesus Was A Cross Maker”, a song subsequently covered by The Hollies, Mama Cass, Judy Tzuke and Warren Zevon. One of few songs here to deploy drums, it has a propulsion and focus this languid album often lacks. “My Man On Love” is another highlight, its cleaner, less cluttered sound acting like a stepping stone to the sonic enchantments of “Heart Food”. From its humble acoustic guitar opening, “Abracadabra” doesn’t so much reach out and grab ya as sweep you away as it swells to an orchestral crescendo of light.

Fascinating in its way, this collision of country, folk, classical and science fiction is probably most valuable as a signpost to what was to come: listened to on its own terms it can veer on the underwhelming at times, which is in no way a complete representation of the late Ms Sill’s talents.

JUDEE SILL Dreams Come True (Water)

“Dreams Come True” collects the alpha and omega of Judee Sill’s recorded legacy, rounding up practically everything of releasable worth not included on the two albums she issued on Asylum in the early 1970s.

This lavish double disc set’s greatest coup is in bringing the remains of her unreleased third album to the wider world. These songs, destined for the original “Dreams Come True”, initially seem straightforward, possibly her most obviously commercial work, yet they’re still suffused with the mystery and wonder that sets her music apart from the mainstream. Perhaps due to budgetary constraints she’s backed by a small but inventive conventionally instrumented quartet – there’s no sign of the expansive orchestrations that characterised her earlier albums here.

Of the album’s highlights, the rolling piano and tumbling percussion of “That’s The Spirit” channel the song towards gospel fervour. The title track suggests something out of a wedding ceremony (or her own “When The Bridegroom Comes”); mainly just Judee and piano, save the chorale that wafts in towards its close, it’s a wonderful, transcendent piece. As much as there are times when the unwavering arrangements seem to suggest an artist constrained and straightjacketed, there are many more when this taut, mystical country rock, possibly the most orthodox music she ever recorded, sounds like the foundation of cosmic American music. Her closest contemporary I can think of is Gene Clark: if you adore his eponymous album and “No Other”, you’ll love “Dreams Come True”, which could slide seamlessly in between the two. It’s enough to make a sensitive soul lament the loss of the music the world’s been denied through Sill’s commercial rejection, chronic health problems, drug abuse and anonymous early death. A smattering of demos closes out the first disc, but even these have the mellifluent arrangements down pat already. They’re fully formed if somewhat furry-sounding, being rescued from cassettes.

A second disc, subtitled “Lost Songs”, could ostensibly appear an exercise in barrel scraping and studio floor sweeping, but it nevertheless provides a release for “Dead Time Bummer Blues”, the most viciously realist of her songs, written whilst serving jail time. A Farfisa-powered “Sunny Side Up Luck” could have been recorded at a small, private religious gathering. Even on “Waterfall”, a rough living room recording of just Judee and her acoustic guitar made as early as 1968, the elaborate melody is already worked out, the phrases curling snugly around each other. Maybe the diverse arrangements juxtaposed here by happenstance might have added the element of variety that the main feature misses; at least we all now have the option of piecing together our personal idealised vision of a third Judee Sill album.

That second disc also includes “Judee Sill Live At USC 1973”, a QuickTime movie of impossibly rare video footage of Ms Sill in performance. Despite its imperfect production it would have been nice to have had this included as a DVD, especially as viewing it rather mangled the display settings on my PC. Nevertheless, it’s fascinating to watch once. The set also includes a 72-page booklet that retells Judee’s story through contemporary press clippings and newly-struck interviews with friends, family, musicians and hangers-on. Überfan Jim O’Rourke says a word about his approach to mixing this historical material; I can’t imagine anyone being dissatisfied with the results of his efforts. In fact, the most significant demerit against “Dreams Come True” is the quality of the packaging: the paper, cardboard and cellophane it’s surrounded in will not weather the years anything like as well as the music it contains.