Famous Blue Raincoat  Sounding Better Than Ever

"Jenny Sings Lenny", as Mr. Cohen playfully referenced this album in a cartoon included in the original release's liner notes but for some reason omitted here, both technically and musically has never sounded better.

Originally released in 1987 on Cypress and later reissued by Private Music and then Classic Records, this IMPEX reissue is the album's fourth and best-sounding version.

Today, heard as a fascinating "historical artifact" of a bygone production era, the glossy arrangements and once sounding almost inappropriately ornate renderings of earthy Leonard Cohen songs, now present themselves as less jarring and somehow more pleasing.

When first released in 1987, Cohen's career was in limbo and Warnes, who in the 1970s had backed him up on tour and in the studio, correctly saw this tribute album as an appropriate way to step out of the shadows and into the spotlight.

While others had covered Cohen, notably Judy Collins, in arrangements that went from weighty and portentous to delicate and reverential, producer C. Roscoe Beck here went for muscular and often glossy and complex, utilizing the latest synthesizer sensations (today we'd call them "plug-ins") and digital multitrack recording to produce a glistening, plexiglass Leonard Cohen tribute that jarred the senses of long time fans, but attracted the ears of younger generations.

When Cohen later released his equally splashy I'm Your Man album the new audience was primed, the older one supportive and Cohen's career took off, reaching heretofore unscaled heights of popularity and iconic cultural acceptance. Now in his '80s, Leonard Cohen has never been more popular, nor has his audience demographic been so young. He's the hippest oldster on the scene—even more so than Dylan.

The supercharged opener here, "First We Take Manhattan", with stinging Stevie Ray Vaughan guitar lines, is from the then unreleased I'm Your Man album as was "There Ain't No Cure For Love".

A "Who's Who" of studio cats participated including Robben Ford, Michael Landau, David Lindley and Fred Tackett on guitar, Vinnie Colaiuta on drums and Gary Chang, Van Dyke Parks, Bill Payne and others on synthesizers. Even the background singers, appropriately enough, in support of the former one here in the spotlight, include many notables—Terry Evans, Bobby King and Willie Green, Jr. among them.

As for Warnes' stepping onto center stage, she puts in a high energy, on the beat, technically superb, cool yet hot performance that's in keeping with the often slick arrangements that you sometimes have to listen past to get to the core of the performance.

However, it's fair to say that less than enthusiastic Cohen fans who claim Warnes narrates well more than she inhabits the lyrics, have a point. Listen for example to "Ain't No Cure For Love". She doesn't fully develop the resignation the lyrics require, though in part that's a result of the hard beat that leaves little room to move. On other tracks you can hear the technical training perfection fighting the spaces where interpretive skills might shine (I have a similar issue with Linda Ronstadt's interpretive skills but in that I appear to be a solo act).

However, while I originally found it difficult to completely warm up to Warnes' performance perfection and her inherent "chipperness", I'm far more appreciative of it now as I am of the arrangements and the overall production. I found Warnes take on "Song of Bernadette", particularly moving. The problem is that her technical chops are so formidable, she makes the truly difficult sound easy.

For fans of Cohen's older albums at the time, this slick and glittering one came across as sacrilegious to some and in conflict with Cohen's essence to others. Today though, heard in perspective it's easier for the old fans to get with the program, especially since this mastering breaks the icy overlay heard on previous versions and brings you further into the warmth. Listen to the background singer detail on "A Singer Must Die" for instance, compared to earlier masterings.

The album was recorded to digital multitrack credited to Bill Youdelman and mixed to analog tape credited to a chorus of engineers including Frank Wolf, George Massenburg, Larry Brown and Henry Lewy. What a team!

Yes some of the late '80s synth sounds are now dated but the greatness of Cohen's songs endure and given the state of today's singing—which is often just a lot of hysterical shouting (and now I sound like my parents!)—Warnes' tastefully restrained yet intense performances here, become more rare, more precious, more beautiful and more valuable.

Bernie Grundman's mastering from the original analog master tape is designed for the best front end setups. If you hear vocal sibilant mistracking, it's your set up, not the mastering. Well mastered, pressed and packaged in Tip-On jacket with new, more appropriate artwork and an insert that provides individual song credits and a photo of Cohen with Warnes where his resemblance to Howard Stern is positively creepy, this Famous Blue Raincoat from IMPEX is the one to have.

gubarenko's picture

Music Direct says it will ship only on 4-6 weeks. They've sold out first print?
But it's still available on Amazon http://amzn.to/1Xh2W64

Jazzfan62's picture

I recently pick up the deluxe 3 disc 45 box of "The Well". The 45 discs comprising "The Well" are jaw dropping.

Zardoz's picture

with you on Ronstadt, so you are not totally alone. There are a few singers like this out there that are "too" technical for my tastes. They seem to lack (enough) soul while being perfect (or as close as possible) on the technical side. The sonics are nice to hear, but they make the performance boring and unemotional. At least for me anyway.

mraudioguru's picture

with you on Linda Ronstadt. One of my favorite female vocalists.

Auric G's picture

that being said, +1.

Auric G's picture

Analogue Productions 45rpm reissue of Simple Dreams.

mraudioguru's picture

...for the heads up! I had not heard that.

Sgood@verizon.net's picture

use the same mastering work Bernie did for the Cisco Music reissue?

madfloyd's picture

I also would like to know. I have the 45RPM version and am wondering if this new version is superior...

Michael Fremer's picture
This is a new cut with Jennifer Warnes working with Bernie in the mastering. Bernie too has updated his mastering chain since the Cisco cut. So the 45rpm/33 1/3 comparison is analogous (no pun intended) to Kevin Gray's 33s for Music Matters versus his earlier 45s for Analogue Productions. The chain trumps the speed.
infohou's picture

So you think this new one is better than the Cisco?

Isn't this the second time you have failed to mention the Cisco in a review of a Famous Blue Raincoat reissue? Why?

Thanks for your efforts,

Toptip's picture

If that means sounding like a Broadway starlet I have to agree...especially on sustained vibratos. It is like attending Annie.

hi-fivinyljunkie's picture

Not mentioned in the review, this was also a Grundman cut. I'm wondering if both versions were done at the same time and this is not a 'new' cut.

thomoz's picture

Singing is storytelling, when you hear a good singer you believe they are feeling the sentiment expressed in the lyrics.

By this criterion, Amy Winehouse, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan are all great singers and Houston and Ronstadt are not. I'm on the fence about Warnes.

It's not about hitting the notes or perfect pitch - it's about phrasing.

audiotom's picture

I'm not much of a Linda Rondstadt fan, that said here renditions of

Someone To Lay Down Beside Me
Blue Bayou

Are so engaging

Back in Jennifer Warnes, good but just doesn't inspire like Joni does

Dr. AIX's picture

I first recorded Jennifer during the production of John McEuen's "Nitty Gritty Surround" AIX Records DVD-Audio project. She's amazing. But it wasn't until we collaborated on a complete album full of new tunes and familiar tracks a couple of years later that I realized that Jennifer equals any female singer I've ever heard. When she sings Mickey Newbury's "So Sad" with just a few instruments accompanying her, the tonal shifts and emotion in her rendition is overwhelming.

I only wish that I could share the album that we produced together. It was recording in high-resolution 96 kHz/24-bit PCM (FBR was 44/16) and has mixes in stereo and surround. It would establish her as one of the 20th centuries true masters, but sadly it cannot be released. I've shared it with some friends here at my studio...and they've cried, it's so beautiful.

Bob S's picture

Did anyone notice Linda harmonizing with Jennifer during the middle and latter portions of Joan Of Arc?