Saturday, April 19, 2003
"Crossing Jordan" : Sounds of the Sixties in Disguise
by Wayne Robins
I finally got around to watching an episode of "Crossing Jordan," a character-driven NBC drama in the CSI vein. It involved forensics, family and Freud with a grisly supernatural air that was plausible as FOX News is "balanced." But the reason I watched is the curiosity aroused by a collection of songs from the show, released by DMZ/Columbia/Sony Soundtrax, which is just stunning.
You've got the usual eccentric gaggle of unrelated artists: A song each by Sam Phillips, Alison Krauss, Cassandra Wilson, Richard Thompson, Lucinda Williams, Vic Chesnutt, , Joe Henry, Wendy Melvoin & Lisa Coleman (theme music) and Rosemary Clooney ("Black Coffee," hip and sexy in a 1963 recording arranged by Sonny Burke). And two each by The Holmes Brothers and the series' star, Jill Hennessy.
But here's the trick: Almost everything was cut fresh in the same studio (the Sound Factory, L.A.) with the same handful of musicians with producer Craig Street. (The now ubiquitous, and still tasteful T-Bone Burnett is the executive producer). So instead of a mish-mash of singers, sounds and styles, the CD of "Music from the NBC Television Series 'Crossing Jordan' '' has an unexpected unity and flow.
And the tunes, at least the most fascinating half dozen, are largely counter-intuitive covers of songs of the sixties, a set of once mood-altering songs with their own moods altered for these dark days of the early 21st century. Sam Phillips (that's Ms. Sam, for those unfamiliar) gives a dizzy dreaminess to Lennon and McCartney's "I Wanna Be Your Man;" contemporary bluegrass whiz Krauss goes way out of character in delivering Blind Faith's "Can't Find My Way Home" as a jazzy noir piece, while Cassandra Wilson stays breathtakingly in character with her version of Hendrix' malleable but durable "The Wind Cries Mary." Marc Anthony Thompson, aka "Chocolate Genius," does a fetching, straight-outta-Brooklyn take on The Kinks "Days." Joe Henry nails the Velvet Undrground's "Pale Blue Eyes" with cool confidence.
Come to think of it, with the exception of Sam's run at the Beatles, the songs seem chosen to reflect the disappointment and loss that were as much (if not more) the essence of the time as the false idealization of the sixties as a time of sex and drugs without consequence and rock and roll without corruption.
The chiller is Richard Thompson's "Season of the Witch," Donovan's most memorable monument to the mood of an era ("Mellow Yellow," by contrast, stands up as well as anything on a "Dr. Demento" anthology). Thompson's voice snarls, his guitar gnarls, as he methodically builds to a crescendo of menace, relaxes, then ratchets up the tension, again and again.
Lucinda Williams, in her unfortunate embrace of diva-dom, breaks format, using her own band on Tom Waits' "Hang Down Your Head." Williams' odd artistic choices are starting to make Waits' seem as conventional as 1960 Bobby Rydell. It might be an interesting performance if the track didn't use so much echo that she sounds as walled-in as 1963 Ronnie Spector.
Of course, Waits' writing for his own mesmerizingly miserable voice offers a zone of protection for those who are less than perfect singers. Jill Hennessy, who plays series star Dr. Jordan Cavanaugh, handles Waits' "You're Innocent When You Dream" and another non-singers' favorite, Bob Dylan's "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," with enough assurance that you'd hardly know she was an actress. And Vic Chesnutt does Dylan's "Buckets of Rain" like a toothless holler-dweller on an Alan Lomax reel-to-reel, such a beautiful disguise you'd hardly guess that Vic was a musician.
(c) Wayne Robins 2003. All rights reserved.