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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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Samantha Crain and the Midnight Shivers, <em>Songs in the Night</em>

samantha-craneSamantha Crain and the Midnight Shivers
Songs in the Night
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Samantha Crain hails from Shawnee, Oklahoma, and along with the Midnight Shivers, performs a variety of folk-esque rock that seems to have, by osmosis, absorbed the roots, Americana, and country flavors associated with her small town upbringing. However, listen to them in interviews and you are as likely to hear talk of Radiohead as you are Woody Guthrie, which is perhaps a sign that geography is not as influential as it once was. With so many traditional (i.e. alt) country artists coming out of California, one certainly can’t deny Oklahoma its indie-rock influences.

With Songs in the Night, the full-length debut following last year’s The Confiscation EP, Samantha Crain and the Midnight Shivers recorded eleven tracks in five days with producer Danny Kadar. It is a debut that feels comfortable. In fact, while the potential obviously lurking around the corner can leave one wanting, its natural sound speaks to endless nights on the road honing their craft.

Particularly appealing throughout Songs in the Night is Samantha Crain’s delivery, which makes one imagine a Neil Young/Bjork lovechild. The album bursts with heartfelt songwriting, natural charisma, and elusive enunciation. This effect is no doubt a byproduct of the group recording live in studio, a choice that really captures their energy. Flanked strongly by the Midnight Shivers’ ideal infusion of electric guitar Crain presents a first-rate follow-up, one that should invite new fans but still satisfy followers of the group.

Opening with “Rising Sun,” perhaps the most radio friendly tr

ack on the album, we are treated to precisely crafted hook that, if the world was fair, would earn it plenty college radio time. Other noteable songs include “You Never Know,” with its southern rock inspired opening; the rhythmic “Long Division” and “Scissor Tales” with their significant country influence; and the indie-rock “Bullfight,” a song that could help shed the folk label they sometimes chafe against. Samantha Crain and the Midnight Shivers shine brightest on “Dam Song,” delivering a song that, while lacking the instant gratification of other cuts on the album, adds depth to Songs in the Night and is reminiscent of The Be Good Tanyas.

While none of these songs are purely country, there is a lot to enjoy for those who lean towards country, southern rock, and folk music. Authenticity is a common term thrown around in country and folk music circles, and it is no doubt that Samantha Crain and the Midnight Shivers have it in spades.

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Country Songs by Non-Country Artists

amigoNeil Young is a rock icon, but he is also known for a lot of folk influenced music. However, while recently listening to his 1992 folky album, Harvest Moon, I was amused to hear a song that is pretty much a country song. “Old King” is a silly ditty that is accompanied by rootsy instrumentation, including a prominent banjo. Furthermore, it’s about man’s best friend, which is a staple for a good stereotypical country song.

 Without being snarky about current mainstream radio (just this one time!), what country sounding songs have you heard on albums by artists that aren’t typically considered country?

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