k.d. lang 

Hymns of the 49th Parallel (Nonesuch)

K.d. lang's first album for the Warner Bros. boutique label Nonesuch is high-concept, indeed. It celebrates songwriters from north of the border, lang's soul- and countrymates. While it's often lovely and it sounds like money, it's also a bit precious.

Hymns treads the line between the sensual and the somnolent, the seductive and the soporific. Without question, the songs are beautiful: Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush" and "Helpless" benefit from lushly voiced arrangements, and the churchy treatment of "Bird on a Wire" gives Leonard Cohen's lugubrious ballad a new, sanctified dimension. Lang deploys her expressive contralto in straightforward fashion; there are more dynamics than nuance in her voice, however.

You may gather that this is an album of noble intentions, and it certainly showcases deserving artists. But after a while, the tunes blend into one another, their individuality blunted by a sameness of tempo and tone. Beautifully if too straightforwardly sung, so thoughtfully conceived that it's overwrought, Hymns isn't vital enough to transcend showcase status. Its seriousness overwhelms its perfume.

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