``Hell Among the Yearlings''
ALTHOUGH they represent different musical generations, Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch have more in common than the fact Harris recorded one of Welch's songs on her 1995 Wrecking Ball album.
Both approach country music with the purity of true believers, yet neither comes from a traditional country background, and both maintain a hip-folkie sensibility that appeals to open-minded rock fans. After 25 years, Harris is practically a patron saint of the alternative country movement that has provided a career boost for younger artists such as Welch.
Harris' Spyboy (4 stars, due in stores Tuesday) is a live album brilliantly showcasing her new band, Spyboy, featuring Buddy Miller on guitar and vocals, Daryl Johnson on bass and Brady Blade on drums. Recorded in Europe last fall, the album is the first release on the independent Eminent label, founded by longtime Harris associate Monty Hitchcock.
Most live albums are little more than a celebration of the bond between artist and audience, as well as a convenient way to fulfill a contractual obligation to the record label. Spyboy is the rare exception that offers a provocative reappraisal of an artist's past, present and future directions.
The 14 tracks range from Harris' early recordings with Gram Parsons (Love Hurts, Wheels) and popular country-rock rave-ups (Ain't Living Long Like This, Born to Run) to the ambient folk-rock sound introduced on Wrecking Ball (Where Will I Be, Deeper Well, All My Tears).
The Afro-Louisiana rhythm section of Johnson and Blade supplies a warm, unhurried and ever-so-subtle funky sense of time, while Miller reaffirms his status as one of American roots music's unsung heroes with his spine-tingling harmonies and spiraling, tone-perfect guitar solos.
The program opens and closes with a couple of previously unrecorded gems, My Songbird and The Maker. But the emotional heart of the album is Prayer in Open D, a soul-baring Harris original on which she stands alone on a mountaintop, asking for forgiveness.
Since she sings with the voice an angel, it's difficult to imagine that heaven could refuse her.
Welch's Hell Among the Yearlings (2 and 1/2 stars) is the follow-up to her critically acclaimed 1996 debut, Revival. She's again joined by her musical partner and co-writer David Rawlings and producer T-Bone Burnett, both of whom contributed immensely to the success of Revival.
If anything, the arrangements are even sparser this time, with Welch alternating between rhythm guitar and banjo and Rawlings playing almost invisible lead guitar lines. The material is darker as well; the first tune, Caleb Meyer, is about a woman who kills a would-be rapist, and other tunes focus on such lovely topics as morphine addiction, weekend benders and black-lung disease.
It's not that such serious subject matter is unusual for traditional country music; bluegrass and mountain music is full of songs about death and pestilence. Compared to smiley-face, contemporary country, such a self-conscious preoccupation with the old-fashioned dark side is almost refreshing.
But you get the sense that Welch is writing these songs out of reverence for the form rather than from personal experience, and folk music (or any music) without authentic emotional reference points is, well, inauthentic.
By trying to write songs that sound as if they could have been written 60 or 70 years ago, Welch has made an album that only makes sense in the cultural context of the late '90s. By making music that offers a spy-boy's around-the-corner vision for country music in the 21st century, Harris has released an album that is timeless.