Tuesday, May 16, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1005: Emmylou Harris

I’m feeling restless today, but I think I’m just eager for a long weekend.

Disc 1005 is…The Ballad of Sally Rose
Artist: Emmylou Harris

Year of Release: 1985

What’s up with the Cover? The tyrannical run of Giant Head covers has ended at five, replaced with this…tiny head cover. This cover features the head of Emmylou Harris, which is lovely at any size, and a tasteful script and floral border. The whole thing looks rather timeless.

Except, of course for the advertisement of “A DIGITAL RECORDING” at the top. On a CD that came out in 1985, this is not a good sign. More on this later.

How I Came To Know It: I recently went through Emmylou Harris’ back catalogue to see if any I didn’t have struck my fancy. Three did, and the other two were both recently reviewed (“Cowgirl’s Prayer” reviewed back at Disc 979, and “Bluebird” reviewed back at Disc 973). "The Ballad of Sally Rose" is the third.

How It Stacks Up:  I am still missing one Emmylou Harris album I want (1990’s “Brand New Dance”). Even without that album I have fourteen of Emmylou’s albums. Of those fourteen, I’m going to bump “Roses in the Snow” down yet another spot to make room for “the Ballad of Sally Rose” at #9.

Ratings: 3 stars

It’s not every day you get a country music concept album but I guess if you’re Emmylou Harris you’ve done everything else, so why not?

On “The Ballad of Sally Rose” Emmylou makes succeeds in making this strange combination work. The album tells the tale of titular songstress Sally Rose who meets her musical soul mate, falls in love and then drifts away from him as he returns to his rakish ways. Even as she translates the inspiration he provided into a music career of her own, she misses him and intends to reconcile, only to find he has died in a car accident. It’s a fairly obvious story (some say is a loose allegory of Harris’ relationship with Gram Parsons) but Emmylou makes it work.

The story is aided by songs that hold together well, and naturally flow into one another. The eighties were responsible for a lot of country music disasters, but Harris manages to navigate through some of the more artificial aspects of eighties production for the most part unscathed. She even makes it work for her, creating an orchestral feel in contrast to a lot of her more stripped down early work.

One of the reasons the songs are so cohesive is all of them are composed by both Emmylou Harris and then-husband Paul Kennerley (who if this album is about Gram Parsons deserves extra credit for letting art come before ego). Emmylou will often write one or two songs per album and they are always great, leaving me wishing she composed more. With “The Ballad of Sally Rose” I finally get that wish fulfilled.

Woman Walk the Line” is my favourite track, powerful and perfect, telling the story of a woman being wronged and willing to hit the bars and let herself be tempted by strange men, but still in control of her desires enough to go home alone:

“Tonight I wanna do some drinkin’
I came to listen to the band
Yes I’m as good as what you’re thinkin’
But I don’t wanna hold your hand
And I know I’m lookin’ lonely
But there’s nothin’ here I wanna find
It’s just the way of a woman
When she goes out to walk the line.”

Harris sets it up she makes it clear that she knows how to walk up to the line and not cross it, showing up her partner’s weakness all the more by comparison.  The song is further aided by a majestic two-note guitar flourish that punctuates Sally Rose’s pride. It feels like Neil Diamond dropped by the studio, strummed a few notes to jazz the place up and then left before he drowned the place in too much schmaltz. Of course, that didn't happen. For one thing, Neil Diamond can never have too much schmaltz - his capacity is limitless. For another he wasn't involved on this record.

But I digress...

The album is also aided by Emmylou’s incredible vocals, her signature quaver a little back in the mix at times because of all the business in the production, but forcing itself to the front when called for, such as on the opening track.

Unfortunately hearing Emmylou (and her great songs) is not made easier by the aforementioned DIGITAL RECORDING advertised on the cover. This album was released in 1985 when albums were still made with records and tapes in mind, and CD technology was a distant third. That is very evident here, with song volumes that sounded muddy and distant.

No matter how much I turned it up it still sounded like I was listening to it through the wall. Only unlike most music you hear through a wall (like from a party going on in the suite next door at three in the morning) I wanted to hear more of it, not less. However, I could tell from the production values that if I turned it up any further it would still sound dull and distant, only louder.

This was a major detraction from what is otherwise a solid record, with thoughtful compositions that successfully marries eighties country sensibilities with old school bluegrass and vocal virtuosity. This is a largely forgotten gem in Emmylou’s discography that deserves more love than it gets in the modern era.

Best tracks: The Ballad of Sally Rose, Rhythm Guitar, Woman Walk the Line, Timberline, White Line, Sweet Chariot

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