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Jessi Colter Sets 'The Psalms' To Chords On An Original, Idiosyncratic New Album


This is FRESH AIR. The country singer Jessi Colter is best known for her part on the 1976 album "Wanted! The Outlaws" with Willie Nelson, Tompall Glaser and her then husband Waylon Jennings. A few years ago, Colter and Lenny Kaye, who's best known as the guitarist in Patti Smith's band, recorded some biblical psalms set to music. They've been remixed and are being released now for the first time. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of "The Psalms."


JESSI COLTER: (Singing) Praise ye, the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary. Praise him in the firmament of his power.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: There's a stark beauty to much of the music on "The Psalms," a highly original and idiosyncratic take on spiritual songs. This isn't gospel music. Jessi Colter has taken The Book of Psalms in the King James translation and set them to chords she picks out on the piano. If producer Lenny Kayes' liner notes are to be believed, and the music certainly seems to back him up, the melodies were improvised on the spot.


COLTER: (Singing) Unto thee, oh, God, do we give thanks. Unto thee, oh, God, do we give thanks for that thy name is near, thy wondrous work's way declare. When I shall receive the congregation, I will judge uprightly. The earth and all the inhabitants thereof are dissolved.

TUCKER: Jessi Colter is more or less a one-hit wonder. "I'm not Lisa," a single released in 1975, hit number one on the country charts. It was her presence on "Wanted! The Outlaws" in 1976, the anthology that gave birth to the subgenre known as outlaw country, that extended Colter's career for a while, as did duets with her husband Waylon Jennings. Colter has an upcoming autobiography focusing on her life with Jennings. Lenny Kaye is the longtime guitarist and collaborator with Patti Smith's band and has worked with poets not only including Smith but also Jim Carroll and Allen Ginsberg.

It's clear from the sound of this album that Kaye has approached this recording as an art project as much as a music project. Listen to the way he layers in background vocals that swirl up and around Colter's performance of "Psalm 21."


COLTER: (Singing) Thy right hand shall find out those who hate thee. Thou shalt make them as a fiery oven in the time of thine anger. The Lord shall swallow them up in his wrath, and the fire shall devour me. Their fruit shalt thou destroy from the earth and their seed from among the children of men, for they intended evil against thee. They imagined a mischievous device, which they are not able to perform.

TUCKER: In his liner notes, Lenny Kaye describes the recording process, saying he recorded Colter alone at the piano, occasionally accompanying her on guitar in real time. He says these performances were captured on the first or second take and that only afterward were more instruments and a few backup vocals added to some of the tracks. His phrase for this augmentation is that he, quote, "decorated them."


COLTER: (Singing) Truly God is good to Israel, even to such as are of a clean heart. But as for me, my feet were almost gone. My steps had well-nigh slipped. I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For there are no bands in their death. Their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men, neither are they plagued like other men. Therefore pride compass them about as a chain, violence covers them as a garment.

Their eyes stand out with fatness. They have more than heart could wish for. They are corrupt and speak wickedly. Concerning oppression, they speak loftily. They set their mouth against the heavens and their tongue walks...

TUCKER: I've never heard religious music performed this way. One effect of this is that Colter and Kaye's methods focused my attention on the words and sentiments within these biblical songs of celebration, lamentation and gratitude. The result is unique, one of the most distinctive recordings I've heard in a while.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed Jessi Colter's new album "The Psalms." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we hear from "Saturday Night Live" cast member Sasheer Zamata. She has a new comedy special. And New Yorker staff writer David Owen talks about high-tech innovations for hearing loss, playing golf with Donald Trump - that was research for an article - and how the Colorado River is drying up from overuse. It's the subject of Owen's new book, "Where The Water Goes." I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


COLTER: (Singing) The Earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof and they that dwell therein in all the world. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.