Thursday, March 30, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 987: Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris

Spring was in the air today as I walked home. Cherry trees blossomed and the sun felt like it might soon be sufficiently bold to kick winter to the curb for good. Well, for six months or so anyway.

Disc 987 is…Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions
Artist: Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris

Year of Release: 1999

What’s up with the Cover? The ladies look like they are part of a wedding party – a super-hot wedding party!

Later they’ll stand gracefully beside the bride in a garden photo shoot. The bride will have a strained smile on her face as she wonders why she told the bridesmaids to wear white, and how much better Emmylou and Linda look in it than she does. Later she’ll blame the maid of honour for a night on the town the previous evening that left bags under her eyes, then get too drunk at the reception and fall in the hotel fountain.

I have a vivid imagination.

How I Came To Know It: I just bought this album in the last couple of months. I think my coworker Sam alerted me to it and a used copy coincidentally showed up a few weeks later.

How It Stacks Up:  I only have one album with this particular pairing but I have three Emmylou Harris albums where she partners up with another singer. Of the three, “Western Wall” is about even with her Rodney Crowell collaboration, “Old Yellow Moon” but behind “All the Road Running” with Mark Knopfler.

Ratings: 3 stars

What’s better than one of country music’s most defining voices? Two of those voices, of course! On “Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions” CD Odyssey frequent flier Emmylou Harris teams up with fellow chanteuse (and Odyssey newcomer) Linda Ronstadt to take some great songs and make them their own.

Emmylou is famous for the sheer volume of her collaborations. She is so prolific she has five separate Wikipedia pages cataloguing them all. Seriously, check it out. With her emotive quaver and natural airy range, Emmylou can make anyone sound good: Bob Dylan, Guy Clark, you name it – and that’s just from the A-F section of the Wiki pages.

So when she teams up with Linda Ronstadt, with her power, range and thick rich tone, good things are going to happen. Together, the two women sing duets, sometimes taking turns on the verses, sometimes blending into harmony where both the richness and the quaver find a delightful balance. This is candy for the ears.

Access to material was obviously not an issue, either, because “Western Wall” is packed with famous songwriters ‘lending’ their tunes. The album features songs written by Jackson Browne, Roseanne Cash, Sinead O’Connor, Leonard Cohen, the McGarrigle Sisters, Bruce Springsteen and others.

Despite this august company, my favourite track is by lesser known Andy Prieboy. Harris and Ronstadt cover Prieboy’s “Loving the Highway Man,” which is about a woman who is ostracized for falling in with an outlaw. The song has amazing production. It mixes ethereal electric guitar, sweet but stark vocals and some well-placed percussion that emphasizes the frustration of the character’s bad decisions like a fist beating a wall.

As usual, Emmylou quietly slips in a couple songs of her own which are every bit the equal of the covers. “Raise the Dead” is a retrospective of Emmylou’s career (already long, and this was 17 years ago). It has a nice mix of bluegrass, country and rock tinges around the edge. Even Ronstadt wisely takes a back seat here and lets Emmylou tell the tale of the musicians that fell before her, and how she knows she’s trapped by the same calling until it’s her time to follow.

Not so good is Harris’ “Sweet Spot” (co-written with Jill Cunniff) which suffers from some very unfortunate production decisions, including a weird echo of some lines flashing only in the right speaker. It felt like my headphones were shorting out. When I realized it was on purpose it made it worse.

Sweet Spot” is also one of a number of songs on “Western Wall” that feel a bit too…motherly. On this track and Sinead O’Connor’s “This Is to Mother You” it sounds like the duo are going to bake you some cookies or bring you soup in bed. It is all just a little domestic. Worst of all, this vibe seeps into Leonard Cohen’s “Sisters of Mercy.” It was hard to hear two of my favourite vocalists take one of my favourite Cohen songs and trade its weary respite for a peace that felt just a little too perfect.

1917” is a nice juxtaposition to this vibe. It tells the story of a French woman having an affair with a soldier on leave from the front. The motherly concern is here as well, but it is intertwined with a steamy romance that is so intimate it is a little uncomfortable to listen to; like you are hearing something that should rightly be between the two lovers alone.

When “Western Wall” sticks the landing, it feels like magic. The musicians are top notch, and the production is sharp, clear and in service to the amazing voices of Ronstadt and Harris. When it misses, the production is overblown, leaving the vocals saccharine and trite. Overall, though, it hits a lot more than it misses, and when you have these two singers it is hard to go far wrong.

Best tracks: Lovin’ the Highway Man, Raise the Dead, For a Dancer, Western Wall, 1917

No comments: