Friday, March 12, 2010

Eva Cassidy - Songbird

A few years back a friend of mine sent me a song by Eva Cassidy as part of a birthday mix CD. I selectively listened to the songs I thought I'd like and, having judged by her name that Eva Cassidy was probably some horrid R&B singer my friend liked ironically, I never listened to the track. Now, years later, I've come around to realize the grievous injustice of that ignorance. The story of Eva Cassidy is one of the more remarkable and tragic ones in recent music, and I'm glad to do my part to share her voice with the world.

Cassidy died of cancer at the age of 33 after only releasing a few albums, one of which was a live one. Songbird is a posthumously released compilation of songs recorded by this incredibly talented vocalist, mixing the live tracks in with studio recordings. She was well known in the D.C.-area music scene, where she emerged and swept the area's local music awards in 1996. When I say "swept", I mean it perhaps more than any other situation would merit; in addition to Artist and Album of the Year, she won Female Vocalist of the Year in four different genres. After her passing, she was featured on the BBC and her fame slowly grew before Songbird was put together as a de facto definitive "Greatest Hits" record, summarizing her short career.

Songbird consists of ten covers, mostly jazz standards but also a few pop songs like Sting's "Fields of Gold," which opens the album. The first sounds of the album are Cassidy's delicate crooning voice over a gently plucked guitar, a sublime combination, as she turns Sting's modern standard into a pained reminiscence. It's one of those covers that completely and wholly transfers ownership of the song from its writer to the new interpreter; her rendition is just superb.

For "Wade in the Water," the next track, Cassidy moves to her jazzy side and gives the gospel standard a swingin' boogie that feels not only appropriate but downright groovy. At this point, I need to praise her band. Cassidy's solo guitar and voice are remarkable on the tracks baring only them, but the album breathes with the variety of life because her talent is equally vibrant in front of her band. As the album unfolds back-and-forth between solo renditions and smoky nightclub sizzlers it shines all the brighter for the juxtapositions.

It's not all jazz and folk, either. Her cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Songbird" (the appropriated title track) breathes with a synthesized pop beat and gorgeously overdubbed harmonies. "Time is a Healer" lets Cassidy slowly build to a wail over a Whitney Houston-esque gospel/pop accompaniment. "Wayfaring Stranger" leads her jazz inclinations over towards a bluesier territory.

There simply isn't a bad track on here. Maybe it's the benefit of being a compilation, but there isn't any filler; it's all remarkable, soulful and beautiful. The Impressions' "People Get Ready," originally a civil rights protest hymn, sounds just right in this collection with Cassidy's soulful interpretation. "Oh, Had I a Golden Thread" pulses with that same gospel soul. Lastly, her "Over the Rainbow" takes us home the way we started, just her voice and her guitar lifting us to the skies.

More posthumous compilations of Cassidy's recordings have since been released and I look forward to finding them because this is one of the more remarkable albums I've heard in a long time. Remarkable not just because of the heart-tugging tragic story of Cassidy's talent, death, and posthumous fame but also because the album simply is consistently good. It is, and she was, incredible.


Janet said...

Thank you! I LOVE Eva Cassidy's voice and you are right, she was incredible. Every song I listen to is better than the last. There is quite a variety in this album and it feels complete.

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