- - Monday, April 25, 2011

Hard Bargain

Emmylou Harris

Nonesuch Records

There’s a reason Emmylou Harris has become the go-to duet partner for virtually every male songwriter looking for a little country credibility.

Since partnering with Gram Parsons in the early ‘70s, Miss Harris has boasted one of the best voices in the business, imbued with the sort of sad, ethereal elegance that’s as heartbreaking as it is beautiful. When she sings “Love Hurts,” you better believe it.

Bob Dylan, Ryan Adams and Conor Oberst have all featured her vocals on their own albums. Miss Harris doesn’t solicit much outside help on “Hard Bargain,” though, jettisoning her collaborative past in favor of an intimate, personal song cycle.

There have been two sides to Miss Harris’ solo work: the earthy country-rock that launched her career four decades ago, and the atmospheric folk that filled her 1995 comeback album, “Wrecking Ball.” “Hard Bargain” is a mix of both. Backed by producer Jay Joyce and instrumental handyman Giles Reaves, Miss Harris floats between the two styles with ease, crooning her melodies over hazy blasts of pump organ one moment and twangy guitars the next.

Although she wrote 11 of the album’s 13 songs herself, “Hard Bargain” isn’t entirely autobiographical. Miss Harris recasts herself as a homeless woman during “Home Sweet Home” and sings “My Name is Emmett Till” from the perspective of the title character, whose controversial murder helped trigger the American civil rights movement in 1955. In a genre that often relies on stock characters, she isn’t afraid to venture well outside the box.

Still, she’s at her most eloquent during the tunes that hit closest to home. “Darlin’ Kate” bids a reverent farewell to folksinger Kate McGarrigle, who succumbed to sarcoma early last year, and “The Road” pays tribute to her mentor, the late Parsons. “I can still remember every song you played,” she sings, subtly tugging at the heartstrings the way she’s always done.

“Hard Bargain” is an understated record. The arrangements are lush, but they don’t conjure up the swirling, majestic aura of “Wrecking Ball.” The vocal performances are modest, too, focusing on clear melody lines and leaving the diva acrobatics to the Carrie Underwoods of the world.

Modesty is one of Miss Harris’ strongest assets, however. At age 64, she wears her years well, declining to swing for the fences for fear of missing the ball entirely. “Hard Bargain” may not be flashy, but there’s a quiet, confident grace to these songs, which pull their punches while still leaving an impact.

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I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive

Steve Earle

New West Records

Given his history with substance abuse, Steve Earle’s moral compass has always pointed closer to Gram Parsons’ decadence than Emmylou Harris’ restraint. On his latest album, though, he downplays his rip-roaring rock ‘n’ roll past in favor of poised, articulate folk tunes.

Written in the wake of his father’s death, “I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive” deals heavily with mortality. Somber song titles like “Heaven or Hell” and “I Am A Wanderer” hint at the grim nature of the music itself, and Mr. Earle follows through by writing erudite lyrics about soul-searching and lonely Earth-wandering. Even the love song “Every Part of Me” contains some serious down-in-the-dumps sentiment, with Mr. Earle singing, “I can’t promise anything, except that my last breath will bear your name.”

However, there’s a brighter side to Mr. Earle’s refusal to gloss over life’s misfortunes. “The Gulf of Mexico” is a rousing Irish sea shanty about the BP oil spill, and “Meet Me in the Alleyway” turns a drug deal into an old- fashioned blues rocker, complete with wailing harmonica and vintage production courtesy of T-Bone Burnett.

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Orbison honored with archival compilation

Those searching for another country-rock icon needn’t look any further than Roy Orbison, who would have turned 75 on April 23. Monument Records, the singer’s label since 1959, is celebrating his anniversary with the release of “Roy Orbison: The Monument Singles Collection.”

Spread across two CDs, the album’s tracklist includes mono versions of Mr. Orbison’s early hits, including “Only the Lonely”and “Running Scared.” The best part of the package, however, is a bonus DVD featuring concert footage from 1965. Performing to a crowd in Holland, Mr. Orbison is shown at the peak of his popularity, having released “Oh, Pretty Woman” only several months prior.

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