A charter member of the “should have lived longer” Pearly Gates hall of fame, a musical muse to the Laurel Canyon cosmic cowboy congregation in the 70s’ with a tonal purity that would make Eva Cassidy blush, Judee Sill, an angel that flew too close to the sun also holds the distinction with her debut self-titled record of having the first proper full-length release on David Geffen’s Asylum label.
Beating out musical luminaries the likes of Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt and Tom Waits, Closing Time was released on Asylum, Sill earned debut honors largely on the strength of her songwriting. Her song “Jesus Was a Cross Maker” was produced by Graham Nash and became a minor hit for The Hollies.
Released in 1971, Judee Sill followed by her sophomore record Heart Food in 1973 marked the pinnacle of not only her career, but of her life. Growing up in less than ideal circumstances in Oakland, California Sill turned having to grow up street-smart into a life of drug addiction, petty crimes, reform school and ultimately prison. It is shortly after her incarceration that she turned to the one thing she knew she could do well and forged her will to pen “Lady-O,” a song that was ultimately recorded by The Turtles and was the impetus that inspired David Geffen to come knocking on her door.
About as strong a debut record as you will find, Judee Sill is not the autobiographical conscious cleansing soul bearing Dickensian tome that one might have expected given her troubled background and dubious past, but rather centers around themes of spirituality and Christianity with a dash of heartbreak thrown in for good measure. Starting with the opening track “Crayon Angels,” the thematic structure here and throughout the album is pure Laurel Canyon Carole King Folk-Pop. Starting with subtle guitar on a goose down pillow of acoustic bliss and finishing with tone-perfect vocals floating on a cloud of lush angelic string arrangements that complete most of the songs. Like a feather landing on a single leaf that is floating on a pond, It is truly stunning to consider that this was a freshman release.
The piano driven “Jesus Was a Cross Maker” is about as up-tempo as it gets on this album, and despite the overtly religious title, the song seems instead to reference people that have influenced you in a negative way, and the need to have someone watch over you. On the strength of “Lopin’ Along Through the Cosmos” alone, Judee Sill should have been a major star. The song is that good. This is about as close as she comes on the album to facing her fears and her past:
“Lopin’ along through the cosmos and sideways I slide through the square/I’m hoping so hard for a kiss from god/I miss the sweet love of the year. A silver chariot soars through mercury ripples of sky/ I’m lookin’ so hard for a place to land/ I almost forgot how to fly. So keep on moving or stay by my side/ either way I’ll tell you a secret I’ve never revealed/ however we are is ok.
This song belongs squarely in the “this song is awesome, why have I not heard it before” section of your own internal musical library.
The relationship portion of our program is represented with the one-two shot of “The Phantom Cowboy” and “The Archetypal Man,” two songs that could very easily be referencing Jackson Browne, Graham Nash, Glen Frey, J.D. Souther, or any of a number of other rat-pack of Laurel Canyon denizens that were riding the cosmic cowboy range in the very early 70’s, up to and including Jim Morrison. In any case, these are two stellar songs that would have been perfect for Carole King to record to begin her post Tapestry career.
The entirety of Judee Sill is one of those pound for pound every song is a winner sort of listens. While her debut release was bordering on masterpiece territory, her second record, Heart Food, released in 1973, was a critic’s favorite, but was met with the sound of one hand clapping as far as the general public was concerned. Undaunted, Judee Sill continued to record demos until her death of a drug overdose in 1979 at the age of 35. Despite the fact that after hearing of her death most of the record buying public were surprised since given her inability to conquer he internal demons, they thought she was already dead, her legacy lives on. Water Music Records has compiled her recordings on two discs, one that is comprised of 8 songs that would have made up the back-bone of her third album, and a second disc of demos and rarities from recording sessions over the years.
Stripped of the lush stings, horns, and shiny sheen of the production efforts and knob twirling, these raw recordings give you in a vacuum the breadth and clarity of an artist that left us too soon, and never really realized the potential that was within her.
Unfortunately, this angel flew too close to the sun and lost her wings. Luckily for us, they fell to the ground and have left us a legacy far beyond what she could have ever imagined.
–– Bernie Sparrow San Francisco, California USA
All tracks arranged and composed by Judee Sill.
- “Crayon Angels” – 2:35
- “The Phantom Cowboy” – 1:40
- “The Archetypal Man” – 3:35
- “The Lamb Ran Away with the Crown” – 3:10
- “Lady-O” – 3:10
- “Jesus Was a Cross Maker” – 3:20
- “Ridge Rider” – 4:28
- “My Man on Love” – 3:23
- “Lopin’ Along Thru the Cosmos” – 3:00
- “Enchanted Sky Machines” – 2:40
- “Abracadabra” – 1:54
- Judee Sill – guitar, vocals
- Clydie King, Rita Coolidge, Venetta Fields – background vocals
- Don Bagley, Bob Harris – orchestration
Give it a listen below
Here’s Fleet Foxes covering “Crayon Angels”