EMMYLOU HARRIS Stumble Into Grace (Nonesuch)
I'm not an Emmylou Harris fan but even I can appreciate that "Stumble Into Grace" is a lovely album. For a lady who has only recently - in a near 35 year recording career - found her songwriting talent blossoming there's not a moment here that sounds less than utterly relaxed and assured. These songs are fully formed, living, breathing creatures, whether surveying the Woodstock generation's bankrupt idealism on "Time In Babylon" or paying tribute to the late June Carter Cash with "Strong Hand". The production work of Daniel Lanois prodigy Malcolm Burn doesn't exactly hinder, either, bathing the album in a foggy, silvery-sepia patina pleasantly reminiscent of Dylan's "Oh Mercy" and "Time Out Of Mind". In fact, there are moments - "I Will Dream", perhaps - when "Stumble Into Grace" reminds me of the gossamer goth of This Mortal Coil's "Song To The Siren" cover, high praise indeed in my book.
There's a whole sisterhood of support here, including Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Jane Siberry and Linda Ronstadt, and Bernie Leadon and Lanois are also along for a track apiece, but, really, this is Emmylou and Malcolm's show. There are little surprises around every corner: "Little Bird"'s Los Incas influence jangles delightfully a la Simon & Garfunkel's "El Condor Pasa", yet the distant, gently whirling Chamberlain figures of "O Evangeline" are the point where country rock bisects with Bowie's Berlin period. Anna's accordion and Kate's violin enchant a rustic take on the traditional "Plaisir d'Amour", and if you don't tremble slightly before the magical majesty of "Lost Unto This World" you might as well tote your soul down to that cold, lonely crossroads for all the good it's doing you. To repeat and conclude, a lovely album.
EMMYLOU HARRIS Luxury Liner (Warner Bros./Rhino)
EMMYLOU HARRIS Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town (Warner Bros./Rhino)
As much as anybody, Emmylou Harris can lay claim to continuing the spirit of the grievous angel in these albums, part of a slew of lovingly-buffed Rhinofications covering her post-Gram solo work. Not content with simply mixing Parsons' own compositions with work drawn from the catalogues of early rock 'n' roll, traditional country and emerging singer songwriters, she recruited some of the personnel from Parsons' solo albums (guitarists Herb Pederson and James Burton, bassist Emory Gordy, pianist Glenn D Hardin) to her own Hot Band. These albums practically breathe the original 1970s cosmic American music vision (rather than its funky space reincarnation at the fingers of Mercury Rev and The Flaming Lips).
These songs feel like a continuation of the threads and unbroken circles begun by her mentor and musical partner: "Easy From Now On" and Delbert McClinton's "Two More Bottles Of Wine" map seamlessly onto "Return Of The Grievous Angel" and "Streets Of Baltimore" respectively. Having neatly encapsulated the past within the opening two tracks of "Quarter Moon In A Ten Cent Town" (1978), Harris proceeds to predict country rock's future with unnerving accuracy. Between them a cover of Dolly Parton's "To Daddy" and "I Ain't Living Long Like This" practically invent Mary-Chapin Carpenter, the latter in particular being impossible to listen to without being reminded of Ms Carpenter's interpretation of Dire Straits' "The Bug" - the voice, the phrasing and instrumentation were all here first.
As if you have to ask, the musicianship displayed here is about as gloriously accomplished as could be wished for, the backup crew including Albert Lee, Rodney Crowell, Nicolette Larson, Willie Nelson, Ricky Skaggs, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson. This reissue adds comprehensive booklet notes, full lyrics and two extra tracks, including a gloriously raucous accordion-led live assault on Guy Clark's "Old Cut Road", which almost overshadows everything that comes before it.
"Luxury Liner", released the previous year, built a similar bridge between old and new country, matching traditional pieces popularised by artists such as The Louvin Brothers, The Carter Family and Kitty Wells with the contemporary work of Townes Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell and Gram. The latter's title track, dusted down from his International Submarine Band days, is a remarkably confident rumble - there's no turning this ship around. On an album modelled even closer on the "Grievous Angel" archetype the outlaw tragedy "Pancho & Lefty" is definitive of the modern era, a song she still performs in concert today, and Parsons' "She" and extra track "Me And Willie" - a little rougher and underbuffed compared to the original album's contents, but only just - are hauntingly shadowed by the erstwhile duo's shared biography. A Cajun-spiced version of Chuck Berry's "(You Never Can Tell) C'Est La Vie" is knockabout fun, but perhaps the album's single most memorable moment is Mickey Raphael's harmonica work at the close of "Tulsa Queen", blowing like a lonesome whistle across empty plains. Again, full lyrics, rare photos and booklet notes do loving justice to an album that fully deserves the American music classic status the cover sticker confers upon it.