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Backtracking: 'Songs of Leonard Cohen': A vinyl reckoning

July 3, 2009 |  1:31 pm

L_cohen_3) Sundazed Records' new version of the singer-songwriter's classic debut is a great way to get reacquainted with vinyl records.

Tastemakers such as Bob Dylan, Jack White and T Bone Burnett might be at the forefront of championing the resurgent interest in vinyl albums and singles, but they're not the only enthusiasts celebrating the return of the format in today's digital era: Nielsen SoundScan reports that vinyl sales will top 2.8 million units this year, up about 900,000 from 2008, and new record stores are springing up across Los Angeles. 

Of course, New York label Sundazed Records, which has specialized in vinyl reissues for 20 years, has been unquestionably ahead of the trend. And what better way to get acquainted (or reacquainted) with vinyl than with Sundazed's new version of the classic debut from Leonard Cohen, a superb singer-songwriter who is enjoying a new wave of popularity thanks to his highly acclaimed tour?

"Songs of Leonard Cohen" was originally released by Columbia Records in 1967 and contains such signature tunes as "Suzanne," "Sisters of Mercy" and "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye."

Sundazed also is releasing four other early Cohen collections: "Songs From a Room" (which includes "Bird on the Wire"), "Songs of Love and Hate" ("Famous Blue Raincoat"), "Live Songs" and "New Skin for the Old Ceremony" ("Chelsea Hotel No. 2)."

The latest catalog from the New York indie features more than 250 vinyl recordings, including such classic works as Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited," the Byrds' "The Notorious Byrd Brothers," the Stooges' "Fun House," Simon & Garfunkel's "Bookends" and Otis Redding's "Otis Blue." Each album has been remastered from the original Columbia Records stereo masters and pressed on "high-definition vinyl." They feature the original artwork and liner note pages where applicable.

The company is so vinyl-friendly that its website, www.sundazed.com, even sells turntables.

To vinyl supporters, being able to hold an album as opposed to simply downloading enables you to establish a closer relationship with the artist and the music -- not to mention that the album artwork is typically more elaborate than that of a CD and vinyl offers a richer, warmer sound than an MP3 file.
Leonard Cohen
"Songs of Leonard Cohen"

The back story: Cohen, born in Montreal in 1934, was a late starter in the music world. After studying poetry and prose at McGill University, he gained early acclaim in Canada for his poems and two novels.

But Cohen, who had been in a country band (the Buckskin Boys) briefly as a teenager, eventually returned to his love of songwriting. His breakthrough was when Judy Collins recorded "Suzanne" in a hit 1966 album and the tune became a fixture in her live show.

Although Cohen had planned only to be a songwriter, John Hammond, the Columbia Records executive who also signed Bob Dylan, was so impressed by Cohen's own versions of his songs that he signed Cohen to a record contract. The debut reached only No. 83 on the U.S. charts, but the critical acclaim was enormous. His literary bent and insightful reflections placed him alongside Dylan and Joni Mitchell as the inspirations for much of the 1970s singer-songwriter movement in America.

The music: Cohen's graceful, confessional songs have been described by Rolling Stone as "elegant, bittersweet mood music for the dark nights of the soul," and there is a relentlessly stark and revealing quality to such tunes as "Sisters of Mercy." Sample lines: "You who must leave everything / That you cannot control / It begins with your family / But soon it comes round to your soul."

"It was all I could write about," Cohen told me in 1995 when I asked him about the dark isolation in his music. "You have to dig down for that true voice, which you've heard in others -- a Billie Holiday or a Hank Williams -- and you try to find it in your music. It's a way of proving you deserve to be here. . . . You deserve to get a girl or deserve to walk out on the street.

"I know this is a very poverty-stricken view of things, but that's the way I was. I never had the luxury of standing in front of a buffet table saying, 'I'll write this kind of song today and that kind tomorrow.' It was like: 'Can I scrape some words together and write anything? Can I dig deep enough inside to say something that matters?' "

For further study: It was hard for years to imagine Cohen ever matching the intimacy and depth of his early rush of songs, but he has come up with so many other gems in his long career. To hear the original versions, the best CD package is "The Essential Leonard Cohen," a two-disc set from Columbia that contains 31 songs, including "Hallelujah" and "Everybody Knows."

If you already have several Cohen albums, the recent "Live in London," a two-disc set, updates his tunes marvelously.

Backtracking is a monthly look at CDs and other pop music releases of historical importance.

--Robert Hilburn

Photo credit: Sundazed Records