I first encountered Warnes back in 1977 with the release of her eponymously titled Arista debut fourth album, prompting me to immediately seek out its 1972 predecessor, Jennifer, (her first two albums remain impossible to find), eventually interviewing her in Birmingham when she toured with Leonard Cohen in 1979. Aside from being his live backing vocalist, she also served as his vocal arranger and sang on several of his albums, the last been 2012’s Old Ideas. It was, of course, her cover of Cohen songs on 1987’s Famous Blue Raincoat that brought her both critical acclaim and her only UK album hit, although the 80s also saw her score two Top 10 singles (and No 1s in America) with ‘Up Where We Belong’ and ‘(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life’, duets with Joe Cocker and Bill Medley from, respectively, the soundtracks of An Officer And A Gentleman and Dirty Dancing. Two further albums followed, 1992’s The Hunter and then, nine years later, The Well.
But then, following the death of her mother 2003, she lost her enthusiasm for singing and, save for guest appearances on the Cohen album and others by John Prine, Chris Hillmann and Jude Johnson, music didn’t figure on her radar. However, in 2015, she reunited with Roscoe Beck who’d produced Raincoat and began to work on new material, only to be hit by a series of devastating losses that saw two of her sisters die within the space of a week, a car accident that took the life of her manager and the deaths of a niece, a former boyfriend, her dog and, of course, Cohen.
Finally, however, her ninth album finally arrives, again, save for one track, a collection of well-judged covers, polished but never without heart and soul, that opens with a number that pays service to that accumulation of loss, a slightly slowed down and spare arrangement of Pearl Jam’s ‘Just Breathe’ featuring French horn, cello and violins that beautifully captures the acknowledgement of mortality but also the value of friendship.
She reaches further back for ‘Tomorrow Night’, a simple drums, organ and upright bass a jazz-blues arrangement (reminiscent of Bonnie Koloc’s work with Brooks Arthur) of a number recorded by Elvis for Sun back in 1962, but dating back to Lonnie Johnson’s original recording in 1948.
Coming up to the present, the achingly bittersweet ‘Once I Was Loved’, a song of years passing, love lost and yearning, is a new, previously unrecorded number by John Legend and Marcus Hummon again featuring Beck on bass along with an arrangement by the Tosca String Quartet. She returns to the Hummon well for another new song, ‘Freedom’, which, with its consciously American anthem-like melody features muted drums, a male vocal echoing the refrain and gospel styled choir.
It has a quality reminiscent of Mickey Newbury’s original version of An American Trilogy and its perhaps no coincidence that there’s an actual Newbury number included, John Ferraro brushing the drums and with Greg Leisz and Dean Parks providing pedal steel and mandolin, respectively, on a gender switched version of ‘So Sad’, a six minute musing on the ephemerality of life mortality from his Long Way Home concept album, recorded just prior to his death, Warnes bringing a soft resignation to the line “I am not in prison I am only doing time”.
It’s surely no coincidence either that, that song have referenced famous Las Vegas hotel casino The Sands that it’s followed by ‘I See Your Face Before Me’, a standard which, while recorded by many, was popularised by the version featured on In The Wee Small Hours, the massively successful 1955 album by Sands regular Frank Sinatra. Warnes’ gorgeous late night reading opens with her singing accompanied solely by Joel Guzman’s accordion before the double bass arrives followed by nylon guitar, piano and a strings, vibes and woodwinds arrangement.
Featuring Sonny Landreth guesting on resonator guitar, my favourite track is her terrific cover of ‘I Am The Big Easy’, Ray Bonneville’s love letter to the resilience of post-Katrina New Orleans, this being followed by the sole self-penned numbers, ‘The Boys And Me’, a lazing ‘going for broke’ serving of Americana coloured by accordion, lap slide, Hammon and strings as she sings “we’re Roman candles.. gonna explode like mighty diamonds across the stars”.
Again featuring resonator guitar, this time from Leisz and Parks, and with a laid back southern blues and soul groove, the song from whence the album title comes is ‘Back Where I Started’, written by Derek Trucks and fellow Allmans member Warren Haynes and featured on the 2009 Derek Trucks Band album Almost Free.
Finally, featuring Weissenborn lap slide and nylon string electric and with Mike Cross on guest vocals, she ends with a lullabyingly lovely Celtic-twilight tinged take on Mark Knopfler’s ‘Why Worry’, a melodically, gently tumbling number that appeared on Dire Straits 1985 release Brothers In Arms, bringing a serene and upbeat closure to and truly outstanding return to making music. Here’s to hoping she doesn’t stay away so long before the next.
Artist’s website: www.jenniferwarnes.com