In 1988, Stompin' Tom Connors, the most fiercely patriotic Canadian musician to ever take the stage in the land of the Maple Leaf, wrote a song in tribute to fellow Canadian k.d. lang for continuing to hang her hat in Alberta after enjoying a commercial breakthrough in the United States. It's hard to say what Stompin' Tom thinks about lang these days, now that she's an out-of-the-closet lesbian, an animal rights activist, and (gulp) spending most of her time in America, but it's a good bet he approves of Hymns of the 49th Parallel, in which lang turns her attention exclusively to the work of Canadian tunesmiths. Anchored by classic songs from Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Leonard Cohen (all of whom rate two songs each), Hymns of the 49th Parallel is not so much a flag-waving celebration of Canada as an appreciation of the often spare and evocative style of its best-known lyricists (or at least that's the case with the material on board), and lang and frequent collaborator Ben Mink have matched the selections with production and arrangements that are simple and to the point, with only a piano/bass/drums trio for accompaniment (though a string section pops in every once in a while). With her phrasing subdued and her projection scaled back from the big-as-all-outdoors sound of her early days, lang seems to have kept her own instrument in check as well, though her best moments still inspire a very real awe. Though lang has chosen some superb songs (and written a fine one herself in the album's only original, "Simple") and performed them with obvious love and affection, Hymns of the 49th Parallel seems oddly lacking in passion; perhaps in deference to the frozen North, this album has a cool and frosty undertow that seems designed to hold the listener at arm's length, despite the inarguable beauty of its craft. Perhaps for the follow-up, she should bring in Stompin' Tom for a duet on "The Hockey Song" to liven things up.
Hymns of the 49th Parallel Review
by Mark Deming