POP MUSIC REVIEW : Dark Songs, Warm Glow From Leonard Cohen

"I thank you for your warm welcome and your deep hospitality," intoned Leonard Cohen near the start of his sold-out Wiltern Theatre show Monday night, his slow, deep voice disconcertingly grave as always.

"However warm your welcome, and however deep your hospitality, though, it will not deter me from my appointed task. . . ."

If not fighting words, those at least sound like the threat of emotional confrontation that might be expected from a revered singer-songwriter and author whose 20-year-plus body of music has had him tagged in Rolling Stone's reference texts as "a poet laureate of outrage and romantic despair" with a "quasi-suicidal aura" suitable for "aficionados of gloom."

Implied threats aside, though, the latently imposing Cohen turned out to be exceedingly, well, warm and hospitable, and his songs--and aura--were none the worse for the wit and glow that surrounded the lengthy evening.

And if the worshipful crowd seemed all too ready to laugh uproariously at the most innocently deadpan comment, little doubt was left by evening's end that Cohen's oeuvre is indeed a frequently funny one.

His songs do tend toward the gloom he seems to be famous for, and Cohen often sings of defeat, but it's important to note that he shies away from romanticizing defeat, or at least tends to have a wryly self-mocking tone when he does indulge.

Most of Cohen's performance of nearly 2 1/2 hours consisted of songs found on his 1976 "Best Of" LP, Jennifer Warnes' excellent 1986 "Famous Blue Raincoat" (slicker versions of Cohen songs that's almost like a second "best of") and his new effort, "I'm Your Man," which finds Cohen in his sliest form yet.

Among the finer moments on the new record--and in the show--is "Tower of Song," performed live by Cohen alone on an elemental synthesizer with a programmed rhythm track and his two handsome female backing vocalists softly ooh-ing and aah-ing.

While the number has several self-deprecating, self-referential lines that got big laughs from the crowd, the tune has pungent applications for anyone who feels sentenced as much as blessed with creative instincts. "You hear these funny voices in the Tower of Song," Cohen explains of himself and all his compatriots in a comic but telling stanza.

This song, like the shuffling pledge of devotion "I'm Your Man" and several others on the new album, has a cool feel that's peculiarly European, like a sort of electronic cabaret music--not entirely surprising, since Cohen's image (graying hair, black suit, white shirt, debonair) and lyrics (thoughtful, sometimes elliptical) bring him far more popular acclaim overseas than in a less artistically demanding America.

For this rare tour, though, Cohen has reproduced the European, electronic feel of the album only where necessary, concentrating more on a Southwestern American flavor with a beautifully understated band that provided frequent smatterings of violin, mandolin, oud and pedal steel guitar.

Providing a common link between both styles were female vocalists Perla Batalla and Julie Christensen, who--a la Dylan--provided a light soul/gospel touch throughout. Christensen, late of punkish L.A. band Divine Horsemen, dueted with Cohen on "Joan of Arc"--in the title role, playing (literally) a soul on fire. Cohen is smart enough to enjoy letting more melodic, usually female, instruments be the voice of his considerable muse, and he couldn't choose any better than Christensen.

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