Wednesday, March 8, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 979: Emmylou Harris

Well that was a busy day! I am looking forward to a music review and then slouching on the couch for a while before I fall asleep.

Disc 979 is…Cowgirl’s Prayer
Artist: Emmylou Harris

Year of Release: 1993

What’s up with the Cover? Cowgirl Emmylou, strong and beautiful. It is hard not to like cowgirls in moments like this, but if they aren’t your thing the back side of the booklet provides something completely different: Vampire Emmylou.
Basically there’s no look Emmylou doesn’t master.

How I Came To Know It: When I reviewed “Bluebird” back at Disc 973 I noted that I recently dug through all the Emmylou albums I hadn’t heard yet, purchasing the ones I liked. This was one of them.

How It Stacks Up:  I didn’t like this album nearly as much as “Bluebird” but it has its moments. I’ll put it 12th out of my 14 Emmylou albums, but since slots 10 through 14 are otherwise unoccupied, I reserve the right to move it up or down a bit depending on how later albums fare.

Ratings: 2 stars but almost 3

When you have a voice like Emmylou Harris you can’t really make a bad record, but I still walked away from “Cowgirl’s Prayer” wishing for a bit more. This record has a few great moments, which is why I bought it in the first place, but they’re too few and far between overall.

Let’s start with a positive. At a time in music when production tended to get a bit too busy and new Nashville was creeping in from all sides, Emmylou manages to maintain a timeless style all her own. She knows how to blend traditional country and bluegrass with blues and contemporary folk that makes even the most boring song sound pleasant. A little new country creeps in on “High Powered Love” but mercifully that song is an outlier.

And as ever there’s her voice, delivering that magical quaver I can never get enough of. It is a voice that can make a bad song sound average and a good song sound great. There were a few times when it was put to the test on “Cowgirl’s Prayer” but it held up well.
Emmylou has a natural talent to cover a great song and make it her own, but “Cowgirl’s Prayer” was a bit of a disappointment on this front, if only in comparison to the amazing run of covers she does on other albums. She does a fine job of the classic Eddie Arnold “You Don’t Know Me”, but it didn’t knock me out of my chair. It could just be that the song has never been a favourite of mine. It’s a bit too mopey, but not in a good way (yes, there is a good mopey. More on that in a minute).

She also tackles Lucinda Williams’ “Crescent City,” once again being drawn to songs about New Orleans and Louisiana. She sings it well, but I like this song with Lucinda’s hurt over Emmylou’s quaver.

The best cover on the record is a reimagining of Leonard Cohen’s “Ballad of the Absent Mare.” With a few subtle line changes Harris turns the mare to a stallion and the song still works beautifully (spoiler alert – the horse represents a person anyway). It is a beautiful song in any incarnation and while Emmylou sings it better, I have a soft spot for the Cohen version. RIP, Leonard.

I bought the album primarily for “Prayer in Open D.” Remember earlier I mentioned that a song can be ‘good mopey’? Well, “Prayer in Open D” is it. It is a confessional of sadness and while the title may be vague, this doesn’t detract at all from the depth of the darkness it descends into. The song begins:

There’s a valley of sorrow in my soul
Where every night I hear the thunder roll
Like the sound of a distant gun
Over all the damage I have done.”

And while the song ends on a flicker of hope, it’s only noticeable because of the thickness of the night Emmylou paints across the song in earlier voices. “Prayer in Open D” is one of only two songs on the record penned by Harris, and another example of how underrated she is as a songwriter.

After multiple listens the song that grew on me the most was “Lovin’ You Again,” a song about the bad loves that attract us, and a recurring booty call that needs to stop but doesn’t. Emmylou serves it all up with equally generous helpings of desire and regret.

The worst song on the record is “Jerusalem Tomorrow” which is a spoken word piece about a travelling charlatan who finds religion. I heard the record three times through, and this track was progressively more painful on every listen. It made me imagine what it would be like to be a kid in Sunday school hearing some story from a nun who wouldn’t let you leave even though the bell had rung. When it came on for the third time on the walk home tonight I winced with the agony of it all.

Fortunately, while few songs inspired me, apart from “Jerusalem Tomorrow” none of the others caused me to physically recoil. Two stars seems a little low given all the threes and fours I sling around this blog, but it doesn’t mean this is a bad record. It just means I wish it were better. Whatever the rating, it is worth keeping just for the three best songs on the record.

Best tracks: Prayer in Open D, Lovin’ You Again, Ballad of a Runaway Horse

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