CD Review of Famous Blue Raincoat: The Songs of Leonard Cohen, 20th Anniversary Edition by Jennifer Warnes

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Famous Blue Raincoat: The Songs of Leonard Cohen, 20th Anniversary Edition
starstarstarno starno star Label: Shout! Factory
Released: 2007
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Call it destiny: Leonard Cohen, the cult hero with immense songwriting talent and a singing voice not even Bob Dylan’s mother could love, meets Jennifer Warnes, the velvet-throated thrush whose only real brush with fame lay ten years in the past. They were two artists whose talents (and commercial prospects) were uniquely well-suited for each other in 1987, when Famous Blue Raincoat was first released, and the cognoscenti quickly hailed the collaboration as a perfect match.

Two decades on, it’s still easy to see what the critics were crowing about. Cohen’s songs are bulletproof, Warnes’ voice is lovely, and the whole album is…well, it’s pretty goddamn boring, actually. This approaches critical heresy – Famous Blue Raincoat has reaped enough hosannas to merit a deluxe reissue, obviously, and remains the universally accepted high-water mark of Warnes’ long (albeit under the radar) singing career – but removed from their ‘80s context, these recordings don’t stand out the way they used to, and what’s left, as it turns out, isn’t much of anything at all.

It isn’t Warnes’ fault, honestly. Cohen’s songwriting persona has always been that of a guy who’s done it all, seen it all, and is now eruditely telling you about it all while the two of you sit in his oak-paneled study. They aren’t rock songs, they’re murder ballads without the murder, and even though Cohen isn’t anybody’s idea of a singer, what you realize when listening to Warnes is that, as much as her voice helps Cohen’s medicine go down, it also robs it of any curative power. The album hints at some interesting dissonance early on, with “First We Take Manhattan,” and there’s no denying the melodic lift Warnes gives to songs such as “Bird on a Wire” and “Joan of Arc,” but after a while, the album just floats on by, like a paper sailboat on a placid lake under a gentle breeze. It feels soft, almost inconsequential – two things that Cohen’s songs, generally speaking, are not.

The reissue pads Raincoat’s original nine tracks with three previously unreleased studio recordings (“Night Comes On,” “Ballad of the Runaway Horse,” “If It Be Your Will”) and a live performance of “Joan of Arc” from 1992, along with a much-appreciated new coat of paint from mastering guru Bernie Grundman. None of it makes this an essential buy, unless you’re a Cohen or Warnes completist, but if you’re looking for some nice dinner music with a nasty undercurrent, you could do far worse.

~Jeff Giles