"Portrait of an American Girl"
"Symphony In 16 Bars"
The title of Judy Collins's first studio album in nearly a decade barely hints at its spoken-word interlude: a seven-minute, synth-orchestrated recitation of Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait." So don't be surprised if you find the solemn tribute a little jarring the first time it pops up between songs or if it becomes increasingly "skip" worthy thereafter. Nothing against the Great Emancipator or the great composer, mind you, but this performance isn't likely to invite many repeat spins, unless you're celebrating Presidents' Day, and perhaps not even then.
Apart from the peculiar track sequencing, "American Girl" has a lot going for it. Collins is in good form, her voice sounding luminous at times, and she has chosen tunes that offer a mix of familiar pleasures (Joni Mitchell's "That Song About the Midway"), engaging diversions (a fresh arrangement of "Sally Go 'Round the Roses") and hard-won insights (Bruce Cockburn's "Pacing the Cage"). As for her own lyrics, they sometimes tap into woozy mysticism. "Singing Lessons," for example, offers up a prayer: "God of sun and moon / God of oceans tides / You who drive the stars / You of perfect light/ Teach me to sing." But as "You Can't Buy Love" illustrates, Collins is capable of writing sweet-tempered, uncomplicated pop tunes, too.
Signed to Collins's record label, singer-songwriter and keyboardist Kenny White is better known for his studio credits (Shawn Colvin, Marc Cohn, Cheryl Wheeler) than for his solo recordings. "Symphony in 16 Bars" isn't apt to change that, but it's an appealing album nonetheless, especially when it capitalizes on White's gift for spinning tales about late-night encounters. Though his delivery is strictly low-key, and even occasionally listless, his best songs, such as "Anabel" and "5 Girls," are highly entertaining. Adding colorful touches are two terrific guitarists: former Bob Dylan bandmate Larry Campbell and Mary Chapin Carpenter collaborator Duke Levine.
-- Mike Joyce
Appearing Friday at Wolf Trap.