Tuesday, February 12, 2013

"Lilac Wine"

This is a post about two versions of the same song. Both are truly special in their different ways, but only one slays.

Back in the late 1970s, I was introduced to this song when Elkie Brooks' version made the charts. I loved, and still do, the measured, restrained buildup that ends in Elkie letting that gorgeous voice loose for the final line. You can barely trace her origins in jazz and blues, but you can certainly hear some rock, deep down, held firmly in check. When you learn that she was an early booster of the Small Faces, it seems a natural fit, and yet a crime that they never recorded together.

So. Brooks' version I love, and this video sadly doesn't go halfway to doing her recorded performance justice, and the arrangement is truly awful, but I'll stick it up here as a taster for what's coming.

Fifteen years later, the same song cropped up on a small record that's gone on to become one of those influential modern classics. I can't lay claim to having bought it on day one, or even in year one, but once I heard Jeff Buckley's version of the same song, I was hooked.

Now I don't completely understand why everyone goes apeshit for his version of "Hallelujah" at the expense of this song. I understand the wonder of "Hallelujah", yes, and I love his almost conversational tone, the casual brilliance of his voice. But still..... to me it doesn't speak as loudly or as clearly as this song does.

Lilac Wine is about drinking to forget. It's tipsy, regretful, wise after the event and yet, in some indefinable way, helpless. You know you shouldn't dwell, but you just....do.

Jeff Buckley "gets" it. He gets the song, he gets the whole back story, he probably lived it. His gentle, wavering, looping voice, bridging to falsetto and back with nary a break, is tired, hungover and full of pain in a way that only more wine will cure. It's a miracle of a performance. And what's better, it doesn't build towards any crescendo as Brooks' version does, it just meanders beautifully, tipsily, to a tired and even ecstatic close.

I have written about cover versions before, and depending on the material at hand, I've veered between the "how-dare-you" school purists that says only the songwriter is truly able to give a song what it deserves, and the more lasser-faire notion that interpretation is as valid a form as creation. And in this case, the latter is gloriously, transcendently proved.

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