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“Bird on a Wire” – KD Lang tops Johnny Cash in cage match pecking order

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To me, “Bird on a Wire” has always been a Johnny Cash song. He made this song his own as a centerpiece of his artistic rebirth with the first 1994 American Recordings album. Many people have covered this modern standard, but no one else has quite the unique vocal authority of Johnny Cash.

Leonard Cohen is obviously a distinguished composer, but he’s a marginal singer at best. Songwriting and singing are very different occupations. Some people happen to be good at both, but not always. Cohen just isn’t a professional quality singer. Crikey, his 1969 original recording on Songs from a Room sounds like Elmer Fudd croaking. Few people would know this song if it were all based on this very marginal performance. As a great songwriter who just can’t sing, Cohen may rate even below the dreaded vocals of Kris Kristofferson.

Johnny Cash, though, was a world class song stylist. He wasn’t particularly the fanciest singer, but he had this powerful baritone and a great depth of emotional experience nuanced into his best performances that can’t be touched. He had a real unique authority as a personality that comes out in the records. However, I’m not entirely sure how much of this effect comes from the expertise of his actual vocal performances versus how much is some kind of perception based on extraneous personality factors, all the stuff we know about his legend being folded in on top of the actual recording.

Johnny Cash delivers Cohen’s poetic lines of sadness and regret like someone who’s really had some things to regret. That he’s just sitting in the living room with an acoustic guitar leaves the beauty of those words in bold baritone relief.

No one else could make the song come out like this. Indeed, this seems to be a high pick among many Johnny Cash fans out of his whole catalog. Like I said, it’s Johnny’s song.

Recently though, I discovered KD Lang‘s outstanding 2004 album of songs by fellow Canadians, Hymns of the 49th Parallel. Man, that’s some good singing. For starters, she obviously blows Neil Young away as a singer on “After the Gold Rush.”

Slowly though, it’s dawned on me that she didn’t just blow Neil Young out with this album, but Johnny Cash as well. She did considerably more with “Bird on a Wire” than even the classic Cash standard just about every which way.

For starters, she has a far more interesting arrangement. “Bird on a Wire” is a great song, and this song’s almost all in the vocal melody, so it works fine with nothing behind it but the simplest acoustic rhythm guitar. Again, that helps to showcase the authoritative vocal.

But the great song works even better with a proper arrangement. KD came up with a really fleet footed swinging jazz arrangement that takes the song to new places before she even starts singing. You wouldn’t necessarily expect that Ellington’s famous maxim “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing” would apply to a Leonard Cohen song, but I guess it does. That bassline throbs so light on its feet like the anxious bird hopping on that wire with a heavy heart.

The whole recording comes on so quiet that I didn’t notice all the little discreet things going on the background. That funereal organ really tops it off, and the basic rhythm guitars add up to much stronger dynamics than the Cash recording. Topping a classic Cash vocal performance is no small task, but she starts out here with much more interesting instrumentation to work against.

However, it now occurs to me that KD is a world class singer, a real full fledged interpreter of song. She can hold her own with any singer.

As it relates here, she starts out clearly a technically superior singer to Johnny Cash. He communicated an extraordinary depth of emotion, but he didn’t have spectacular range or effects. KD has far better traditional chops- range, control, affects. Then again, so did vintage Mariah Carey, so there’s the limits of technical ability as a criteria for greatness.

However, KD not only has the superior voice, but she also knows what to do with it. She takes a significantly different outlook on what the song is about than Johnny. Cash emphasized regret. “If I’ve been unkind…” comes out his focus, on the same album with his interpretation of “The Beast in Me.”

KD doesn’t seem to feel so guilty, but more tired and sad, rising up to speak her piece. In her interpretation, “I have tried in my way to be free” seems more the central tenet here.

Anyway you slice it, KD put up at least as strong and unique an emotional tenor in her performance as this Cash classic. That’s no small feat. Plus, she made much more of a record out of it.

KD Lang owns “Bird on a Wire.” It’s her song now.

KD LANG @ MORETHINGS
JOHNNY CASH @ MORETHINGS

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  • http://w6daily.winn.com/ Phillip Winn

    I find this hard to believe, but your review compels me to seek out this album to find out. Cash own3d by lang? Ouch!

  • http://www.morethings.com/senate Al Barger

    I understand your skepticism. It took me awhile to get my mind around the idea, but she’s just that good.

  • http://w6daily.winn.com/ Phillip Winn

    Wow. Having just heard her version, all I can say is, “Wow.”

    I’m not quite ready to say she owns the song, but she’s got a lien on it, at least!

  • David Fulton

    I adore Leonard Cohen despite his vocals (to be fair, he doesn’t sound half-bad with echo). But I couldn’t agree with you more about “Bird on a Wire”. I actually prefer Lang’s version but only JUST. Cash’s is powerful whereas Lang’s is eloquent.

    Similar debate goes on with Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. Is it Jeff Buckley who owns the vocal version? John Cale? Rufus Wainwright? I tend to side with Jeff only because his vocals tends to haunt rather than overwhelm the lyrics.

    I like this concept of the “modern standard”. Too much of our culture is transient. It is gratifying to see some songs do endure.

  • Eric Olsen

    Jeff owns “Hallelujah”

    I actually like Joe Cocker’s version of “Bird On the Wire” from Mad Dogs and Englishmen best

  • http://groups.msn.com/JazzMP3 Hannah

    I agree, kd lang’s version is amazing. Look forward to her next album.

  • Atz

    There’s no real comparison. Leonard Cohen’s original of Bird on a Wire is less polished but it rings true. kd lang is too close to easy listening for my ears. Johnny Cash had true grit and lived it. So, it’s highly subjective, but, I’ll still take LC’s version.

    As for Hallelujah, there’s way too many sleepy versions. Jeff Buckley’s studio recording has been marketed extremely well – too, well. (Several of his live versions just plain suck.) Allison Crowe’s spare, rock, version takes the song somewhere else – it’s a revelation. John Cale’s take is very personal. And, for pop lovers, Rufus Wainright is no slouch!

  • http://www.morethings.com Al Barger

    How’d you get “easy listening” out of KD’s Bird there, Atz? Or does it just seem easy to listen to because it doesn’t hurt your ears to hear her, as opposed to LC?

  • Atz

    Al, music listening is clearly a subjective experience, but, like quite a few folks who love the kd of old, for me this outing lacks energy and passion. Sure, she still has a great vocal instrument, but it’s in service to easy listening, loungey even, arrangements and instrumentation. And the delivery is all too controlled and smooth.

    Maybe too much time spent hangin’ with Tony Bennett?

    Still, to each their own. It just lacks emotional bite. If you want something that sounds nice, then it’s ok – but, if you want to be deeply moved by music, it’s not there.

    You can believe Cohen and Cash when they sing it – however imperfect their vocals.

    And that truth makes a song.

  • Gary Chiappetta

    The classic standard which I would measure any subsequent cover of “Bird On The Wire” is the version by Judy Collins from her circa 1968 album “Who Knows Where the Time Goes.” The magic ingredient in “Bird” was the masterful Pedal Steel Guitar work done by Buddy Emmons. “Bird”, along with “Someday Soon” and “Poor Immigrant” sported instrumental arrangements that were outside-the-box (for their time).

  • snapfruzen

    Here’s another version of “bird” to feast your ears on; just released in Australia in July. Jimmy Barnes “Double Happiness”. A bit of background, “Barnsie” is the much loved god of rock in Australia (look at jimmy barnes.com), with the credibility of say Springstien. He can scream like Wilson Picket and is known as the “working class man”. Combine him with Australia’s best young country singer -songwriter Troy Cassar-Daley, throw in Barnsies daughter Bella and you’ve got magic.

  • http://azanos@2re.com.au Anthony Zanos

    Just a note on Jimmy Barnes’ version of Bird on a Wire. ‘Bella’ isn’t his daughter – it’s a group consisting of country singers Lyn Bowtell, Karen O’Shea and Kate Ballantyne. They were asked to provide backing vocals when Jimmy and Troy performed the song at the annual Australian Golden Guitar awards during the Tamworth Country Music Festival. Brilliant version – played it on high rotate for 4 months on our local radio station.

    Anthony Zanos
    2RE (2 hours east of Tamworth)

  • Scott

    This album is a pure gem, one of my favorites of all time. As Tony Bennett said, k.d. lang is the best singer since Judy Garland. Yes, she is THAT AMAZING! This album, along with Drag, is absolutely beautiful and establishes her as great a pop singer as any that has ever lived!