Monday, May 2, 2011
MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: EMMYLOU HARRIS - HARD BARGAIN
The big news in Canada will be Harris covering Ron Sexsmith's cut, and making it the title track on this disc. She does do a fine job on it too, and it's one of my favourite Sexsmith songs. There are more important headlines though, the most important being that eleven of the thirteen tracks here are Harris originals. Her transition from traditional country cover artist to modern moody songwriter is now complete.
Let's recap to study the transisition: In 1995, plastic country had taken over, and former hitmaker Harris had no place to play on the radio. So she completely reinvented her sound by teaming with producer Daniel Lanois, adding his layered and modern techniques. By her next studio album, 2000's Red Dirt Girl, she kept the sound, and started writing again, something she had rarely done in the past. She has become the best collaborator in the business, with such luminaries as Mark Knopfler, Bright Eyes and Elvis Costello. It's pretty hard to call her a country artist now, and this new disc sure doesn't sound like it.
There are two major tributes here. Lead track The Road is another one dedicated to her mentor, Gram Parsons. Harris has written and sung about him throughout her career, and has helped build his mythology. This one is probably the most plain-spoken one, for the most part the best she's done. That shows how her writing has progressed, to the point where she can write eloquently, and also simplify her lyrical statements, which is one of the hardest and most effective songwriting tricks. Even cliches such as "three chords and the truth" can be powerful in the song, because it seems such a natural line to throw in the song. (The phrase was originally coined by writer Harlan Howard to describe country music, and has been used by everyone from Sara Evans to U2 in song.)
The other, and possibly even more effective tribute, is Darlin' Kate. Written for the late Kate McGarrigle, it is a touching requiem for a dear friend, a song that feels like it had to be written. In its opening verse, Harris places us right beside McGarrigle's death bed, as she says her goodbye to her friend. Again, the words are simple but dramatically effective: "With your perfect words/and oh that voice/We fell in love/we had no choice".
There are several other top-quality compositions on the disc, with quite a few different topics. Interestingly, she takes on the true 50's story of Emmett Till, victim of a racially-motivated murder, and already eulogized famously by Bob Dylan. It was never one of Dylan's best, and Harris handily beats him with this new one. There's a strong post-Katrina song too, simply called New Orleans, with the boast "It takes more than a hurricane/to empty out the Pontchartrain". Harris has no great theme on the album, and it's no biographical collection as she's done in the past. Instead, she's simply become a fine songwriter. Cool, we already knew she could sing a bit.