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V/A - Wayfaring Strangers: Ladies from the Canyon

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Artist: V/A

Album: Wayfaring Strangers: Ladies from the Canyon

Label: The Numero Group

Review date: Mar. 26, 2006

It's undoubtedly an odd concept for a compilation, but reissue imprint the Numero Group has made it a business of turning their eyes to records and localities that, until now, have passed blind. So it is that Wayfaring Strangers: Ladies from the Canyon arrives, a 14-track collection that examines how the influence of Joni Mitchell spider-webbed its way across America, into small communities full of dreamers with little to no commercial backing (and perhaps debatable potential) and back out again on vinyl sides with tiny pressings that probably would have been forgotten if anyone other than the original performers actually heard them.

Although the compilation takes Mitchell as its starting point and inspiration, the "canyon" in question refers to a much wider cross-section of musicians – those practitioners of the Laurel Canyon Sound, a breezy brand of singer-songwriter confessional that took the folk revival as its foundation and emerged as the sunny side up, paradoxically, of long nights spent blowing coke and exploring Los Angeles' seamy underbelly. Jackson Browne, CSN&Y, Carole King, the Eagles, and lesser known luminaries like the now deservedly revived Judee Sill operated in and around this orbit, providing stars for the rest of the nation's coffee shop buskers and church folkies to attempt to reach.

To say that the artists gathered on Numero's latest disc operated in obscurity would be a generous understatement. As Rob Sevier and Ken Shipley point out in their introduction, "The bulk of these albums never left a fifty-mile radius, and the ones that did went to family and friends." As it goes with a lot of Numero's releases, the impact of this release is every bit as historical as it is musical, providing yellowed and tattered snapshots of women singing their hearts out across America in the hopes of someone, anyone hearing their voices and transplanting them to that fabled left coast.

There isn't a whole lot of variation from track to track here outside of each individual's voice, in a way creating an almost uniform tribute to the sound and style of one Ms. Mitchell. Linda Rich's "Sunlight Shadow" mixes de rigeur finger-picking with deep cello tones, in the process affecting a poignant and memorable chorus. Caroline Peyton gets by on the strength of her voice alone, coming the closest to capturing the spirit and sound of some of Joni's lighter moments on "Engram" – not a bad thing by any stretch of the imagination. The disc closes out with three of its best tracks, running from Barbara Supple's touching "Song for Life," to Ginny Reilly and David Maloney's Buckingham-Nicks channeling on "Wildman," and concluding with teen Ellen Warshaw's surprisingly adept reworking of "Sister Morphine."

Other moments here are a bit tougher to swallow. Shira Small's singing on "Eternal Life" is flat and listless, while the 15-year-old Jennie Pearl's contribution sounds like an unsuccessful attempt to navigate a high school musical audition. But the inclusion of these extreme outsiders is almost crucial for context – after all, not every woman inspired by that fabled canyon sounds quite as effuse and effortless as, say, Carla Sciasky does on "And I a Fairytale Lady." As it stands, Wayfaring Strangers is hardly an essential compilation for Laurel Canyon newcomers. For those well-versed in the sound, however, it's an interesting look at just how deep that rabbit hole went.

By Michael Crumsho

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