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Album Review: Emmylou Harris, Wrecking Ball: Deluxe Edition

Emmylou Harris Wrecking Ball Deluxe Edition

Emmylou Harris

Wrecking Ball: Deluxe Edition

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Nonesuch has released an impressive deluxe edition of the landmark Emmylou Harris album, Wrecking Ball.  For those who are new to the set, this is the edition you should buy.  But it’s also worth the upgrade for those who already have this set in their collection.

Produced by Daniel Lanois, this album was a stunning departure for Harris, so much so that she personally requested that it not be eligible for the country charts.  That’s funny in retrospect, given that alongside legends like Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young, the album was anchored by compositions by up-and-coming songwriters like Gillian Welch, Lucinda Williams, and Julie Miller.  With further cuts by writers like Anna McGarrigle, Steve Earle, and Rodney Crowell, Wrecking Ball helped set a template for what would become a vibrant Americana scene over the years that followed.

Nice history lesson, right? But the reason this album sounded great then, and still does now, is because the songs are fantastic and the production is evocatively original.   It still sounds fresh today, and while Emmylou would hold on to remnants of this sound for next few projects, it has both its birth and its zenith on this record.  It might be her best album, period, and it’s definitely her most ambitious and interesting.

The deluxe edition’s best element is its second disc of demos and outtakes, which help tell the story of how some of these songs took shape.  I was most fascinated by the revved-up, rapid-fire “Deeper Well”, and the melancholy reading of the self-penned “Gold”, which she would include in a (slightly) more upbeat version on her 2008 album, All I Intended to Be.   It didn’t quite fit with the rest of Wrecking Ball. All of the outtakes and demos included indicate the album was released in its best possible form, and most are for the completist only.

The bonus DVD is a 1995 documentary called Building the Wrecking Ball. It’s an overlong puff piece that’s most entertaining for its showcase of mid-nineties “serious musician” garb.  Emmylou in sleeveless flannel aside, the doc also features what I consider the most maddening editorial choice films like this can make: playing the final album version of a song over mixed footage of said song being recorded and being performed live.  For me, it made watching it unbearable.

But the packaging is worth the upgrade, with a fantastic new essay by Gillian Welch and nearly typo-free lyrics for both the original album and the second disc of rarities.  Some nice photos, too.  Overall, it’s a more serious deluxe take than we’ve gotten on any Emmylou Harris album to date, putting those Rhino reissues of her earlier work to shame.

 

 

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Best Country Albums of 2009, Part 2: #10-#1

Round 2 – FIGHT!


#10
Play On
Carrie Underwood

World: meet Underwood. She’s fiercely compassionate and endearingly idealistic (the riveting “Change”). She holds her beliefs with a firm but quiet conviction (“Temporary Home”). She’s as comfortable and convincing at tearing down a wrong-doer (the Dixie Chicks-esque “Songs Like This”) as she is nursing an irreparable heartache, whether it’s in the form of a haunting country standard (“Someday When I Stop Loving You”) or a rich pop ballad (“What Can I Say?”). And she’s one of the most gifted vocalists of this generation, possessing an instrument that, when colored and layered with emotion as she’s aptly learned to do on Play On, can have bone-chilling effects.

Like it or leave it, Play On is the most authentic encapsulation of Underwood’s artistry and persona to date, and serves as an exciting glimpse at how far a little growth can carry her. The best is yet to come, but in the meantime, the “good” is pretty damn good. – Tara Seetharam


#9
Sara Watkins
Sara Watkins

As most people know by now, Sara Watkins is the female member of the now-disbanded (hopefully temporarily) New Grass trio, Nickel Creek. While Nickel Creek was difficult to classify in a certain genre (not bluegrass, not country), they were embraced by bluegrass and country music fans alike. Each member of the popular trio has released intriguing projects outside of Nickel Creek, but Watkins’ album  has assumed the most decidedly country direction of them all. As a result, we are treated to a sublime album thanks to Watkins’ sweet voice and a set of impressively solid songs. – Leeann Ward Continue reading

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100 Greatest Albums of the Decade, Part 2: #90-#81

    The 100 Greatest Albums of the Decade, Part 2

    90 Miranda

    #90
    Miranda Lambert, Kerosene

    On her first major-label album, Lambert reveals herself as a fiery, spirited artist with a lot to say, and a clever voice with which to speak. Her sharp songwriting skills, though a work in progress as we’d later learn, take her naturally from aggression to desolation and back again. But most notably, through Kerosene, Lambert got the traditionalists to pay a little more attention to mainstream country music and its more promising artists. – Tara Seetharam

    Recommended Tracks: “Kerosene”, “I Can’t Be Bothered”

    89 Kris

    #89
    Kris Kristofferson, This Old Road
    This Old Road has not have received as much mainstream attention as Kristofferson’s recent appearance in Ethan Hawke’s Rolling Stone article; an unfortunate fact, given it was the legendary writer’s first album of new material in 11 years. With This Old Road, Kristofferson shines a spotlight on the world much in the same his earlier writing shined a spotlight on himself. The result is an overtly political album with more depth than most modern attempts have been able to produce. – William Ward

    Recommended Tracks: “The Last Thing to Go”, “Pilgrim’s Progress”

    88 Guy

    #88
    Guy Clark, Workbench Songs

    The recordings  of the songs that Guy Clark, one of country music’s most respected modern songwriters, has written for the most popular artists in country music are typically polished by the best Nashville musicians and slick producers. But Clark’s own albums tend to be more organic, with spare instrumentation that somehow manages to avoid sounding anemic as a result. His well worn voice sings these eleven melodically and lyrically strong songs with warmth and the kind of emotion that easily captures the listener. It’s one of the best albums of his deep catalog that spans over thirty years. – Leeann Ward

    Recommended Tracks: “Walkin’ Man”, “Expose”

    87 Wynonna

    #87
    Wynonna, What the World Needs Now is Love

    It’s hard to believe that it’s been six years since Wynonna’s last proper studio album. This collection is easily one of her best, with effective covers like “I Want to Know What Love Is” and “Flies On the Butter”, along with socially conscious material that provokes thought instead of pandering to already held beliefs (“It All Comes Down to Love”). – Kevin Coyne

    Recommended Tracks: “Sometimes I Feel Like Elvis”, “Rescue Me”

    86 Lee Ann

    #86
    Lee Ann Womack, I Hope You Dance

    The massively successful title track powered this album to triple platinum, but it also overshadowed the excellent songs surrounding it. For those who explored the album beyond track two, there were some of Womack’s finest moments on record, as she had the good taste to plunder the catalogs of Bruce Robison (“Lonely Too”), Bobbie Cryner (“Stronger Than I Am”), Julie Miller (“I Know Why the River Runs”), and Rodney Crowell (“Ashes By Now”). – KC

    Recommended Tracks: “Lonely Too”, “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger”

    85 Chris

    #85
    Chris Thile, How to Grow a Woman From the Ground

    This is the first album from the band that would eventually become Punch Brothers. Garnering a Grammy Award Nomination in 2006, How to Grow a Woman From the Ground is a solid bluegrass album with classical sensibilities and extraordinary instrumentation. – WW

    Recommended Tracks: “Wayside (Back in Time)”, “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”

    84 Ralph

    #84
    Ralph Stanley II, This One Is Two

    Hyperbole alert, but it’s hard to think of a more beautiful-sounding traditional country album from this decade, or one which more comfortably merges old school aesthetics with modern production polish. Stanley corralled a number of meaty story songs here, but it’s the combination of his warm baritone and the lush instrumentation that gives this gem its quiet strength. – Dan Milliken

    Recommended Tracks: “Cold Shoulder”, “They Say I’ll Never Go Home”

    83 Louvin

    #83
    Various Artists, Livin’ Lovin’ Losin': Songs of the Louvin Brothers

    Tribute albums too often feel redundant, as well-meaning artists deliver nice but forgettable imitations of classic records. Not so with the Louvins’, which sticks veteran and current artists alike on the Bros’ close harmonies and sees each intriguing combination (Pam Tillis and Johnny Cash? Why not!) triumph. I daresay it’s as good an introduction to the duo’s work as any compilation of their own recordings. – DM

    Recommended Tracks: “How’s the World Treating You?”, “Are You Teasing Me”

    82 Todd

    #82
    Todd Snider, The Excitement Plan

    Snider mostly avoids both political themes and complex arrangements on his latest record, emphasizing his greatest strength as a writer instead: his uncanny ability to make the most specifically personal have universal resonance. Listen out for a wonderful cameo from Loretta Lynn on “Don’t Tempt Me.” – KC

    Recommended Tracks: “Barefoot Champagne”, “Money, Compliments, Publicity (Song Number 10)”

    81 O'Connor

    #81
    Mark O’Connor, Thirty-Year Retrospective (Live)

    Mark O’Connor’s Thirty Year Retrospective is a double instrumental album of his live performance with Chris Thile, Bryan Sutton and Byron House.  The album covers a wide range of Mark O’Connor’s career, presenting a range of instrumental country, bluegrass, new grass and jazz with the detail and care often only applied to classical music. – WW

    Recommended Tracks: “Caprice No. 4 in D Major”, “Macedonia”

    - – -

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    Miranda Lambert, Revolution

    miranda revolutionMiranda Lambert
    Revolution
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    Miranda Lambert is a rare and fascinating case study of an artist who is able to push a significant number of records out the door, but is hard-pressed to receive equally significant radio airplay in return. While her first album, Kerosene, was certified Platinum and the follow up project, Crazy Ex Girlfriend, fared similarly well with Gold certification, she has only managed to squeak into radio’s top ten once with “Gunpowder And Lead.” On her third album, Revolution, it is entirely possible that Lambert has finally found a way to strike the tenuous balance of pleasing both critics and the general country music listening public with her album consisting of everything from sensitive ballads to rocked up, punk-flavored songs and a lot in between.

    Not only does her impressive range of versatility sonically manifest itself, her depth of influences also appears by way of song contributions by people who aren’t just the usual suspects, but also dips into the pens of some highly esteemed Americana artists who aren’t typically covered by mainstream artists, as she did with songs from Gillian Welch and Patty Griffin on Crazy Ex Girlfriend. While there is a song that is co-written with the male members of Lady Antebellum and three co-writes with Blake Shelton, more interesting contributions are Fred Eaglesmith’s “Time to Get A Gun”, which is actually more relaxed than Eaglesmith’s manic rendering, Julie Miller’s “Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go” that was rearranged with a punk vibe, and a lyrically watered down (with confusing changes) but sonically amped up version of John Prine’s “That’s the Way the World Goes ‘Round”. Additionally, she includes three songs written with Ashley Monroe, including the catchy “Me and Your Cigarrettes” (also written with Shelton), which Monroe sings on as well.

    As was ever present in her previous albums, Lambert maintains a certain edge for which she is best known both in sound and lyrics. Songs like “Maintain the Pain” (with a guest appearance from Blake Shelton), “Time to Get A Gun”, “Sin for A Sin”, “White Liar” and “Only Prettier” display Lambert’s trademark tendency toward the attitudinal. While all these songs are noteworthy for various reasons, “Only Prettier” specifically taps into Lambert’s sardonic capabilities, which results in the most amusing song of the album. Using political jargon, she suggests that the high society crowd can get along with the less refined folks but ends up antagonistically concluding with the barb, “We’re just like you, only prettier.”

    However, as is also often overlooked with Lambert’s music, there is certainly a more sensitive and introspective side that is actually more prevalent on Revolution than on her prior albums. In fact, “Makin’ Plans”, “The House That Built Me”, “Airstream Song” (her answer to Merle Haggard’s “The Way I Am”), and “Virginia Bluebell” can all be described as gorgeous. Incidentally, they are also the quieter tracks. Of these songs, the most thematically compelling is “The House that Built Me”, which is an unshakably touching tribute to the contribution of the childhood home and its accompanying memories. “If I could just come in, I swear I’ll leave/Won’t take nothin’ but a memory from the house that built me”, she promises the house’s current owner.

    In this fifteen song set, Lambert does not merely rest on the comfort ability of her past album’s themes and productions. Instead, she reaches for growth and diversity. While she is not completely successful (mostly thanks to some heavy production choices), her attempts to stretch herself are largely positive and indicative of an artist who is mainstream but not afraid to stay true to her tasteful and eclectic roots. Moreover, Lambert continues and even improves upon her natural inclination toward quality songs, stellar vocals and intriguing productions. Hopefully, she will someday be truly rewarded for her artistic integrity by receiving airplay to match her sales.

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    2009 Americana Music Association Awards Nominees Announced

    The nominations for the 8th Annual Americana Music Association Awards have  been announced:

    ALBUM OF THE YEAR
    Real Animal, by ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO
    Written in Chalk, by BUDDY & JULIE MILLER
    Jason Isbell & The 40 Unit, by JASON ISBELL & THE 40 UNIT
    Midnight At The Movies, by JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE

    ARTIST OF THE YEAR
    ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO
    BUDDY MILLER
    JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE
    RAUL MALO

    INSTRUMENTALIST OF THE YEAR
    BUDDY MILLER
    GURF MORLIX
    JERRY DOUGLAS
    SAM BUSH

    NEW & EMERGING ARTIST
    BAND OF HEATHENS
    BELLEVILLE OUTFIT
    JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE
    SARAH BORGES

    SONG OF THE YEAR
    “Chalk,” written by JULIE MILLER, performed by BUDDY MILLER & PATTY GRIFFIN
    “Country Love” by the GOURDS
    “Homeland Refugee,” by JOE ELY, JIMMIE DALE GILMORE, and BUTCH HANCOCK, performed by the FLATLANDERS
    “Rattlin’ Bones” by KASEY CHAMBERS & SHANE NICHOLSON, performed by KASEY CHAMBERS & SHANE NICHOLSON
    “Sex And Gasoline,” by RODNEY CROWELL, performed by RODNEY CROWELL

    DUO GROUP OF THE YEAR
    BUDDY & JULIE MILLER
    FLATLANDERS
    KASEY CHAMBERS & SHANE NICHOLSON
    RECKLESS KELLY

    The awards will be given out at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville on September 17. Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale will serve as hosts.

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    Allison Moorer, Mockingbird

    Allison Moorer
    Mockingbird

    Allison Moorer’s latest album is an exercise in splendid restraint.  Excepting the title track, a Moorer original, Mockingbird is a collection of songs written and performed by the women who serve as her musical idols. Moorer shows an overt dedication to honoring the timeless rhymes of her sistren, drawing inspiration from a diversity of musical styles that she whips into an intoxicating cocktail.

    Mockingbird experiences a hiccup early, when Moorer chooses two fine songs marred by bland production. The cover of the Cash family classic “Ring of Fire” is presented as a ballad, with a fraction of the intensity that charged the original, and Patti Smith’s “Dancing Barefoot” suffers from its brittle, progressive rock arrangement.

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