My father, who served during the kamikaze end of the Second World War, only occasionally allows emotions to betray him. But there is a particular version of “Sentimental Journey”, the one Doris Day was singing on the radio when his ship sailed beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, carrying home one of the first groups of repatriated POWs from Japan, that makes his eyes drift particularly far from where he’s sitting.
“Sentimental Journey” is not, of course, a song about war, but it is very much about that particular wartime, a languid close-dancer for those who might go years between dances and months between letters. Subsequent U.S. military engagements have provoked a tradition of transitory protest songs, angry demonstrations, decreasing national unity, and little (if any) music to make one mist up 50 years later.
Elizabeth Cook shares relatively little with Doris Day, save a certain irrepressible charm. Concealed toward the end of thirteen alternately funny, clever, sassy and touching love songs on Cook’s third album is a gem every bit as memorable as Day’s reading of “Sentimental Journey”. Though the luck of Cook’s career suggests few radio stations will play it, and thus too few will hear it, “Heather Are You With Me Tonight” is the first great song to emerge from these turbulent years.
At first you simply sing along with the refrain, a gentle C chord resolving through the air, a sweet song to go with the jokes and the hopes which precede it. The next lines, then, come unexpectedly: “Right now I’m not your man/I’m a pilot in flight/And my heart is stopping/With each bomb I’m dropping,” she sings.
There is no judgment here; this is a slow-paced, solitary song. A love song, like all the others, but so carefully drawn as to focus simply on the man flying the plane through the night, his abiding loneliness, his ambivalence about killing (“Ain’t it funny how winning/Feels just like sinning?”), and how desperately he needs her love (“If I’m going to make this a free land/I’m going to need me a wing man”).
The title/refrain resonates throughout, asking for Heather’s fidelity, her support, her understanding, and her touch. It is an index of the care with which Cook has written that it is possible to hear this song and ascribe a wide range of viewpoints to the protagonist, and to the singer. We will never again have the kind of clarity about war this country shared during WWII; “Heather Are You With Me Tonight” captures all our turmoil in a brief, altogether human portrait. The track’s only flaw is a mood-changing and sarcastic “excellent” called out from the control booth at the tail.
Cook sings in a high, clear voice, reminiscent in its quiet moments of Dolly Parton, or of a more burnished Julie Miller. But it is distinctly her voice, filled with great personal charm, and you can almost hear her eyes twinkle when she sings “You like rock/And I’m a little unstable” and such.
This Side Of The Moon argues, for the third time, that Elizabeth Cook (if this isn’t damning with faint praise) deserves to be in heavy rotation, even in today’s country music world. She has a stunning and distinctive voice, writes well (“Heather Are You With Me Tonight” is a solo voyage; eleven other tracks are co-writes, mostly with Hardie McGee, plus one from husband Tim Carroll), is whip-smart, and — I wish this weren’t important, but since it is — she isn’t hard to look at.
Her self-titled debut got her guest spots on the Opry and a deal with Atlantic Nashville, which became Warner Bros. That long-delayed album, Hey Y’All (reprising five of the original songs, and covering “I’m Not Lisa”) came and went in 2002.
The initial surprise of Cook’s self-released follow-up is how coherent it sounds, despite having been assembled from what her website calls “song experiments.” Which is to say five different producers (including a track each from Randy Scruggs and Sugar Hill’s Steve Fishell) had a hand in recording it, at eight different studios. Nevertheless, it sounds like her throughout, that bright voice almost chirping with happiness.
And Elizabeth Cook sounds increasingly like an artist to whom attention must be paid.