Jennifer Warnes's Famous Blue Raincoat: 20th Anniversary Edition

An earnest homage to Brother Grim hasn't aged well at all

A year after the release of 1987's Famous Blue Raincoat, an album's worth of Leonard Cohen covers, Cohen himself gave it the perfect critique: "Very rarely someone like Jennifer Warnes comes along . . . who can bring musical qualities to the song that I can't even approach. This superb sound that issues from her throat. Now maybe that can get in the way of the song, too." Perhaps unintentionally, Brother Grim nailed the problem with this reissue. As much as one admires Warnes's taste in songwriters, the unadorned truth is that Cohen's dark, grave voice is a better instrument for his songs. Also, his original arrangements—from solo-guitar bare to brass-band ironic—are more fitting than the slick stuff here. Stevie Ray Vaughn playing processed blues licks on "First We Take Manhattan"? Inappropriate. Smoky sax on the title track? It's a meditation on betrayal and revenge, not a lounge song. Furthermore, Warnes's melismas (think a less histrionic Ronstadt) sound sweet, not murderous.

The reissue bonus track "Night Comes On" is perfection, however: With an acoustic guitar leading the way, Warnes negotiates Cohen's meditation on finding the will to "Go back to the world" with calm authority. Raincoat might have been a triumph if all its tracks were similarly uncluttered—though it's a decent introduction to the master of folk noir, more devout Cohen fans may quickly need a sonic palate cleanser. Slap on Songs From a Room, stat!

 
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