Emmylou Harris - Hard Bargain
Without trying to sound like I'm damning with faint praise, Emmylou Harris' album is much better than her last few -- Red Dirt Girl, Stumble Into Grace, All I Intended to Be. After a career as one of the premier interpreters of others' songs, Emmylou has started a late-career push as a songwriter, with some pretty varied results. (It reminds me of Michael Jordan trying to switch to baseball...you just think: why?) But while these songs are stark (a kinder synonym for simple), the production complements/augments them nicely -- though producer Jay Joyce probably owes Daniel Lanois a quarter for all that he has "borrowed" from the sound of Wrecking Ball.
My biggest problem is simply with the songwriting. The rhymes remain almost exclusively on the monosyllabic level: me-free, end-friend, chart-heart -- someone send along a rhyming dictionary or something. The deepest Emmylou manages to reach into the pool of multisyllabic words is to break out one partially satisfying "muzzle-puzzle" rhyme in the bouncy, childlike "Big Black Dog." (I guess if you're looking for complex wordplay, just go with Sondheim.) The best one can say about these straightforward lyrics is that they have a simple, homespun flavor. Complex? No. Satisfying enough? Sure. It's when she reaches beyond the simple emotional expressions of grief, love, longing, melancholy, etc, that the album really stumbles: "My Name is Emmett Till" and "New Orleans" spring to mind. Simple (and let's be honest, limited) songwriting skills necessitates keeping songs simple. Historical tragedies like Emmett Till and Katrina require a lighter, more skillful touch, while heartfelt, plain songs about Gram Parsons and Kate McGarrigle pull at the heartstrings without needing filigree. Most of these songs are satisfyingly simple and sad and heartfelt, put over with the classic style and grace we all expect from one of the all-time greats.
Alison Krauss & Union Station - Paper Airplane
Paper Airplane is another album that works to reverse the middling trend of the last few Alison Krauss albums. While I could never turn my back on AK+US (as those in the know abbreviate them), their last couple efforts -- New Favorite, Lonely Runs Both Ways -- were fairly lackluster. Paper Airplane, without being a masterpiece, is a ton more satisfying than either of those last two records. It feels more focused and consistent -- like a purposeful step forward rather than a meandering series of steps sideways.
I like the song and this album enough that I will even forgive this ludicrous music video, with its contrived neo-civil war aesthetic and Krauss' prarie-girl gingham dress & apron COMBINED WITH FOUR-INCH STILETTO MINIBOOTS!?!?!:
Bill Callahan - Apocalypse
After Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, I picked up this new album from Callahan sight unseen. And while it provides the requisite deep-voiced Americana-inspired weirdness I love, there's something less immediately pleasant/pleasing/engaging about this album; there's more experimentation here than on Eagle. Yet it's a rich record full of musical and lyrical complexity -- um, hello, jazz flute! I feel like you need to climb to the top of a wooded hill on a beautiful day, alone with your iPod, to give Apocalypse a proper listen from beginning to end in the appropriate environment. Ideally, you'd have a pricey stereo system set up at the top of that hill, but I'll let that slide for the sake of convenience. Please let me know how it goes.