The last 5-✭ song, Dylan’s One More Cup of Coffee, got there in large part due to harmonies from Emmylou Harris. Emmylou’s never really been a Big Star I think, which is unfair; she’s sung more beautiful songs beautifully than almost anyone. Wrecking Ball, her 1995 outing with Kanadian Karmick Konsultant and overproducer Daniel Lanois and featuring lotsa Big Stars, is perhaps not absolutely her finest work; but it’s what I have on my computer and it’s very good. (“5✭♫” series introduction here; with an explanation of why the title may look broken.)
The Context · Emmylou Harris’ voice sounds like nobody else’s; sweet, strong, but always, even when she was young, a little burr or scratch at the edge, I don’t know what the technical term is, the kind of thing that would have kept her off the stage in a more formal era. Me, I love it, and it has frequently brought tears to my eyes.
I like her singing by itself, but some of her best work is as a harmonist; in particular, her handful of duets with Gram Parsons on Grievous Angel, recorded just before his death in 1973, has a special place in many hearts.
I suppose it’s helped her career that Ms. Harris is ethereally, enchantingly beautiful; but I’m sure I’d be listening anyhow whatever she looked like.
She’s veered back and forth between country and pop and (in this outing) alt-rock, and always seems at home.
The Music · Daniel Lanois is most famous as U2’s producer, although he’s also worked with Dylan, Gabriel, and even recorded his own album Acadie, which I find entirely unlistenable. He is given to spiritual-sounding incoherent rambling when allowed to speak on camera, and I often find his taste for globs of random distortion somewhat but not entirely unlike an electric guitar, placed in the middle of the soundstage and the middle of the song, perhaps a bit over the top. Having said that, he’s produced a few records I really like.
On this one, he gets far enough out of the way; although there’s always a bit of electric ghost drone lurking in the sound, it mostly works. The musicians include Lanois, Neil Young, Larry Mullen, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Steve Earle, and Lucinda Williams. Which is good. There are songs by Lucinda Williams, Neil Young, Steve Earl, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and Rodney Crowell. Which is very good.
Standouts are Earle’s Goodbye, Julie Miller’s All My Tears, Anna McGarrigle’s Going Back to Harlan, Deeper Well by Olney/Lanois/Harris, and Crowell’s Waltz Across Texas Tonight. Then there’s the title track by Neil Young; the haunting chorus “Meet me at the Wrecking Ball/I’ll wear something pretty and white” is repeated perhaps a couple too many times, but it’s a great song. That’s six standouts in twelve tracks, not bad at all. I only disliked one (Lanois’ May This Be Love) enough to flush it off my disk, and I’m increasingly picky every month that goes by.
Hmm, I’ve just been going on about production values and musicians and songwriters and don’t seem to have said anything about the singing, by the person whose picture is on the front of the record. I don’t have words for that stuff, you have to hear it.
Sampling It · I think this is another one that you just have to buy on CD, because you’ll be listening to it long after this decade’s DRM stops working, and because while Lanois’ production may be a little weird, the sound is magnificent; even when in a few spots it gets a little bit shockingly grungy-sounding behind Emmylou’s arc of vocal sweetness, it’s very polished grunge.
I see that Emmylou has a new record out, a collaboration with Mark Knopfler called All the Roadrunning. Probably worth taking a chance on.