Marc Cohn: Listening Booth: 1970

This is only the 5th Marc Cohn CD in almost two decades, to my mind far too little from so talented a gent, but Listening Booth: 1970 couldn't have formatted itself better or more timely, a jukebox of hits and also-rans from the year quoted, songs that have become standards or wistful keepsakes, often both, and ideal expositions of exactly what it is Cohn does. He chose the year for a very good reason, the point in time at which a page was turning but still held the magic of the 60s, refusing to pass until one last hurrah was sounded. Thus we get, often in a restrainedly lush Willy Porter fashion, takes on a dozen gems - some classics, some hidden rubies, all well tended and explored.

Ah, but there's a whole lot more, especially in the appearance of four guests: India.Arie, Kristina Train, Aimee Mann, and Jim Lauderdale, as Cohn steers the esteemed tracks through their paces, turning, for instance, Bread's soft-rock blockbuster "Make It with You" into a soul groove dripping with sinuous side adjuncts the original never had, India.Arie providing a brilliantly sensual counterpoint to Cohn's vocals. Then, his version of Clapton's "After Midnight" is equally slinky, almost a New York bohemian love letter to cafe romance.

Perhaps the best exposition, though, is Badfinger's "No Matter What", designed by the band to underscore the pre-eminance of the human voice. Cohn tames it quite a bit while retaining center stage sensitively a la Jesse Winchester. As with the year chosen for this release, the song suspends the singer-guitarist perfectly between the world of rock & roll, the milieu of much softer folk-rock, and an uncategorizable incarnation (hence, my Willy Porter comparison above). That said, the choice of Van Morrison's knock-out "Into the Mystic" reaches to spiritual heights while embracing the grit and mist of our mundane sphere of flesh and sod, a haiku to life lived while pining for transcendence. Faithful to the original - and it's almost impossible to improve on Morrison - Cohn invests it with the blood pulse and reverence the song deserves, rescuing the rarely covered gem once more from the classic Astral Weeks to a new millennium.

That said, however, my favored track is his reversal of John Fogerty's "Long as I Can See the Light," turning the original impassioned shouter into a porcelain-delicate pensee that almost becomes quiet gospel, an introspection of hope and purity amid darkness. That has always been Cohn's hallmark, by the way, the ability to transform while maintaining perfect balance.

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