Emmylou Harris records have been traditionally supported by some of
the finest musicians and producers in the business. Harris has collaborated
over the last 36 years with Brian Ahern, James Burton, Rodney Crowell, Albert
Lee, Sam Bush, Daniel Lanois, Buddy Miller, and many others. Her voice has
always soared over musically intricate and elegant surroundings.
For Hard Bargain, Harris
chose to work with only two other players, producer/guitarist Jay Joyce and
synthesizer player/space music noodler Giles Reaves. Neither one has much in
the way of personality on display, though both are competent enough musicians
to make Harris sound good. With the exception of the title track, written by
perennial songwriter favorite Ron Sexsmith, and the album closer “Cross Yourself,”
written by Joyce, the songs are all originals by Harris.
Two elegies stand out from the rest of the material. “The Road,” a
tribute to Harris’ one-time musical mentor Gram Parsons, doesn’t tell us
anything we haven’t known before about their relationship, but it is a
beautiful statement of love, memory, and influence for someone who has long
since passed away. “Darlin’ Kate” is much fresher, written about the death last
year of Kate McGarrigle, a long-time friend of Harris who, along with her sister
Anna, sang background vocals on many Harris records. For those who have
worshipped the music of the McGarrigle sisters (or who have loved the music of
Kate’s son and daughter, Rufus and Martha Wainwright), this song serves as
evidence that Kate was as lovely a person as she was a musical presence. At any
rate, it’s clear that Harris considers her to be that way.
Emmylou Harris has always been more personal than political as a
singer or songwriter, but she does cover some larger topics this time around.
“Home Sweet Home” puts us in the mind of a homeless person who has encountered
troubles through no fault of his own. “New
Orleans,” which benefits from an atypically, for this
album, propulsive rhythm track, doesn’t quite solidify its details to make us
feel the pain of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. “My Name is Emmett Till”
is a tough one to call. The story of Till, who became a Civil Rights icon after
being beaten to death for merely being black and saying hello to a white woman
back in 1956 Mississippi, is worth keeping in mind, but Harris doesn’t quite
inhabit his character enough. The horrors are described, but for a song written
in the first person, Till just doesn’t seem human here.
The only other song which really connects on Hard Bargain is “Big Black Dog.” Harris is famous for her love of
canines – she lives with many, and reportedly always brings a few along on her
tours. This sing-songy tale of love for a specific rescued beast is full of
love and joy. Joyce and Reeves even sound like their having some fun on this
cut, instead of doing their best to ape Daniel Lanois soundscapes without his
sense of emotional breathing.
So it’s not her finest effort, but Harris is in strong voice, and the
songs are pleasant enough even when they don’t resonate. It’s hard to tell if
some of the material is just sub-par, or if the arrangements fail to bring them
to life. Either way, we are left with an album for hard-core fans more than
DOWNLOAD: “Darlin’ Kate,” “The Road,” “Big Black Dog”