Wednesday, November 18, 2020

2020 best reissue: Beverly Glenn-Copeland

Beverly Glenn-Copeland – Transmissions (Transgressions).

Is it a comeback story if no one knew who you were? Are you a late bloomer if you've been performing for 50 years? No, the incredible story of Beverly Glenn-Copeland is one of a new generation's discovery of the right artist at the right time and place.

Here's the short version of the story: a Philadelphia woman attends McGill as one of the first black students and certainly one of the only out lesbians there at the time, records two self-titled albums: one for the CBC in 1970 and one the next year with some of the top players in Canada, including guitarist Lenny Breau, and recorded by future Rush producer Terry Brown. Does some session work, including with Bruce Cockburn in 1980-81 (among other things, on the phenomenal "Tokyo," one of the greatest singles by Cockburn—or anyone), and lands a 25-year gig on Mr. Dressup. Moves to the woods near Huntsville, Ontario, in the 1980s, discovers early computer music software and releases Keyboard Fantasies in 1986, selling only 50 copies on cassette. Lived a life of obscurity for decades, identified as trans in 2002, and through a weird fluke and Japanese interest in Keyboard Fantasies, ended up becoming a minor underground sensation in the late 2010s, sparking a documentary, tributes, and international gigs and press. That all leads to this career-spanning compilation. 

Among others, a really lovely long-form profile ran in the New Republic.

Before Copeland's renaissance, I was aware of the name, if only because I'm the kind of nerd who reads Bruce Cockburn liner notes. I inherited a bunch of '70s vinyl years ago from a family friend, which included Copeland's second album. It didn't do anything for me when I got it, nor when I revisited it over the years: it's lovely but very earnest folk-jazz that I pegged as a post-Yorkville curiosity. Likewise, when Keyboard Fantasies was first re-released, I listened and heard only the kind of '80s new age that seemed oddly in vogue with people 20 years younger than me, and I was mystified. For all I knew, which was not much, this story could be the new "Lewis"—and if you know that somewhat regrettable obscure Canadian reference, more power to you. As Copeland's profile increased, I didn't pay much attention.

This brief yet comprehensive compilation, however, is a game-changer, and the strongest testament yet as to why Copeland deserves to be heard. First, is the voice: rich with operatic gospel tones, seemingly effortless and never show-offy. It's such a beautiful and warm instrument. With that comes a sheer force of personality that carries the listener through those Joni-esque early folk recordings to the lilting '80s synth lullabies of "Ever New" to the trip-hop of opening track "La Vita" to more recent recordings, including a rousing singalong version of "Deep River" recorded in the Netherlands.

That's why this compilation works so well: by spanning such a broad stretch of time, the track list's musical diversity reveals a complete portrait of a complex artist. Whereas certain albums sound dated as a whole, individual tracks illuminate steps in a journey (and I now love the two tracks here from Keyboard Fantasies). Without this curatorial vision, would I ever have become enraptured by the world of Beverly Glenn-Copeland? Possibly, if I had the chance to see him perform live, or finally got around to watching the doc (which I haven't yet). But this comp is revelatory and endlessly rewarding.  

This week, the Polaris Heritage Music Prize inducted three records: Buffy Sainte-Marie's It's My Way, Main Source's Breaking Atoms—both selected by a jury of critics—and Keyboard Fantasies, which won the public vote. All three choices seem rooted in a deliberate attempt to broaden the Canadian canon, which thrills me to no end (I say this having been a founding juror in 2015, when I considered it part of the mandate). But I'm always skeptical of public votes on prizes, because it's all too easy for an artist's fan base to vote early and vote often, so depending on the rabidity of the fan base (Rush) and the hustle chutzpah of the artist (Peaches), it can be relatively easy to win (not that either of those two didn't deserve it; they did).

But how the hell did Beverly Glenn-Copeland win the public vote? There's no marketing machine there. It's not a nostalgic favourite; the album only became widely available relatively recently—an album, I'll remind you, that only sold 50 copies the first time around. And finally, two years ago the number of people who knew his name probably numbered in the low hundreds. From total obscurity to winning a public vote previously won by Neil Young, Arcade Fire and Alanis Morrisette—that's quite a leap.

It says a lot that this music, this man, strikes such a chord right here, right now, with healing music in a world of pain. 

Runners-up for best 2020 reissue:

Prince – Sign O the Times (Warner). I mean, come on. On the one hand, it presents a good argument for record company interference: the 1987 double album is flawless; a triple album would not have been. But the "fat" sure is fascinating, even if we've already heard the best tracks trickle out over the years (and the mythical Miles Davis collab is not one of them).

Pylon – Box (New West). I'm not a big enough fan that the B-sides and early demos mean a lot to me, but the fact that the first two records, from 1980 and 1981—the missing link between the B-52s and R.E.M. in the lore of Athens, Ga.—are once again widely available is thrilling enough. The band that once blew away Gang of Four and turned down a tour with early U2 can now once again prove what all the fuss was about. Still pinching myself over the fact that I got to see the Pylon Re-Enactment Society perform at a street festival in Athens last year, a teenage dream come true. Only question: where is 1990's Chain, the record they made after R.E.M. lured them out of retirement?

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