Over the last 20 years, k.d. lang has lent her voice to an astonishing range of material, from Nashville tearjerkers to Tin Pan Alley torch songs, from playful cow-punk tunes to sultry, grown-up pop. With her Nonesuch debut Hymns of the 49th Parallel, the Alberta native brings it all back home, metaphorically speaking, exploring the work of her favorite Canadian songwriters: Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Bruce Cockburn, Ron Sexsmith and Jane Siberry. She juxtaposes classics from iconic artists who were her inspirations with equally brilliant material from contemporary performers who remain her fellow travelers.
"These songs are part of my cultural fabric, my Canadian soundtrack," lang says. "They have nurtured my musical DNA. To recognize and honor the profound impact they have had on me, my approach to interpreting these songs is to sing them as honestly, as purely, and as true to how I heard them as possible, with respect and reverence for the songs and for the songwriters...as hymns...simply songs of praise."
lang was initially inspired to pursue this project after touring with longtime collaborator Tony Bennett, with whom she had recorded the 2002 duet album A Wonderful World, a collection of standards popularly identified with Louis Armstrong. lang told the Toronto Star, "It led me to thinking about the Canadian songbook and my own musical heritage. The more I thought about it, the more I thought about the people who influenced me and my culture."
She considers it "a singer's job to cultivate standards by interpreting" and on Hymns she does her job exceptionally well. lang offers some of the most affecting vocal performances of her career, thereby ensuring that all of these personally treasured tunes will be appreciated for a considerable time to come. She emphasizes the pignancy and gravity of "After the Gold Rush," Young's cautionary tale of environmental disaster, and renders Cohen's "Hallelujah" even more compelling by taking it down to an intimate, sensual scale. lang makes Cockburn's "One Day I Walk" a plainspoken prayer and brings both worldliness and vulnerability to Mitchell's "A Case of You," a barroom soliloquy in which heart-sickness and homesickness intermingle.
While it's thrilling to hear lang tackle this vintage material, perhaps the most revelatory moments on Hymns are also the most contemporary. She deftly negotiates the musical and emotional twists and turns of friend Siberry's gorgeous "The Valley" and delivers a rendition of Siberry's "Love Is Everything" that's as otherworldly as lang's famous cover of Roy Orbison's "Crying." (lang and Siberry have worked together before: in 1991, the pair collaborated on another hymn of sorts, the incantatory "Calling All Angels," for Wim Wenders' film, Until the End of the World.) She also revisits her own "Simple," co-written with bassist David Piltch, a no-minced-words declaration of love that she originally recorded in 2000 for her dreamily romantic pop collection, Invincible Summer.
She pored over the work of many artists before choosing these songs. In the process, lang told The Rocky Mountain News, she discovered "this thread that runs through Canadian songwriting that is really beautiful. It's their inherent understanding and incorporation of nature and the elements into the songwriting to express emotions, both spiritual and human." One can find it, for example, in the austere seasonal imagery of Sexsmith's "Fallen" or the moving evocation of a town left behind that opens Young's "Helpless." For the album's cover, lang chose a photograph by Andy Goldsworthy, whose minimalist image of a winter pastoral scene struck lang as a visual analog of the naturalism that unites Canadian songwriters.
lang cut the tracks during five days of sessions at a Los Angeles studio in May 2003. Accompanying her was a small group of players who have recorded and/or toured with lang for many years: pianist Teddy Borowiecki, bassist Piltch, and guitarist and co-producer Ben Mink. Except for a version of Joni Mitchell's "Jericho," drums are pointedly absent from these tracks. As lang explained to the Toronto Star, "I didn't want to use drums because I felt that drums would instantly attach each song to a genre...I wanted each song to stand on its own." However, they do feature strings, arranged and conducted with understated grace by Eumir Deodato, a veteran of sessions with artists ranging from Astrud Gilberto to Aretha Franklin. "I wanted to express the elegance that the songs all have," lang says. "Eumir Deodato has an amazing capacity to understand the intimacy of a track."
In May 2004, lang embarked on a symphony orchestra tour of North America, relying on Deodato's subtle arrangements to showcase selections from Hymns as part of a career-spanning set. Along with Borowiecki and Piltch, lang is joined on tour by guitarist Greg Leisz and drummer Danny Frankel -- as well as by a locally based symphony orchestra in each city she visits. Early reviews have been stellar: The New York Times called her "entrancing" and the Toronto Star praised her "astonishing infallibility" as a vocalist.
As her audiences at prestigious venues such as Carnegie Hall indicate, lang attracts a loyal and diverse, multi-generational following. A multi-Grammy Award-winner, she's recorded more than thirteen albums, including collections of straight-up country (Shadowland), urbane adult pop (Ingenue, which featured the hit "Constant Craving"), sophisticated torch (Drag), and just a little disco (for the soundtrack of Gus Van Sant's Even Cowgirls Get the Blues). Hymns of the 49th Parallel illustrates lang's impeccable taste and reveals the deepest roots of her craft. For the length of an album at least, there's no place like home.