Jessi Colter: The Psalms

Videos by American Songwriter

Jessi Colter
The Psalms
(Sony Legacy)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

It has been just over 10 years since 2006’s rightly celebrated Don Was-produced Out of the Ashes, the last batch of new material from country legend Jessi Colter and, at the time, her first release in 20 years. Prolific she is not.

That doesn’t change now on this set of a dozen of King David’s biblical Psalms; the basic tracks of Colter and her piano were recorded live in the studio during two-day sessions in 2007 and 2008. Over the years, producer Lenny Kaye (not just known for his guitar work backing Patti Smith throughout her extensive career, but as a writer, in particular working with Colter’s late husband Waylon Jennings on his autobiography) augmented the once-stark piano accompaniment with other instruments, occasionally just harp and cello but also a full bass/drums/guitar band and even some spectral backing vocals on the ghostly “Psalm 21.” 

These aren’t songs in the traditional sense. There are no distinct choruses, bridges or verses, at least not in the usual definitions of those terms, and the words don’t rhyme. Instead, Colter creates introspective, passionately stirring pieces where she vocalizes — mostly talk/sings — the words of King David’s Psalms from the Old Testament in a freeform, stream-of-consciousness flow. It’ll take a few spins to absorb and warm up to the concept, and this non-commercially inspired music was never meant for radio airplay, but sink in it will.

This isn’t something you’ll sing along with, nor should it be. Colter is noticeably moved by these words written centuries ago, generally praising the Lord. That authenticity is reflected in the serious, affecting compositions and especially Colter’s soulful connection to the words. Kaye’s work brings these performances to life, highlighting the music’s natural intensity by layering overdubs that enhance Colter’s expressive voice and vividly inspirational approach. Al Kooper is also a noticeable participant, especially on “Psalm 45,” where he contributes synthesizer, French horn, lead guitar and, errr locusts, to a particularly emotional Colter reading. 

Some may accuse Kaye of “gilding the lily,” augmenting the stripped-down original piano/voice renditions with excess coating. But he is attuned to maintaining Colter’s rootsy authenticity, keeping her playing prominent in the mix, and most of these selections are enriched by his work.       

The album’s appearance almost a decade removed from its inception is not random; it coincides with Colter’s own autobiography, scheduled a few weeks after the disc’s release date. Still, it’s impossible not to be moved by The Psalms and regardless of your religious affiliation, this is a unique and poignant album that was clearly a labor of love for all involved.

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