By: Tim Anderson
Emmylou Harris-Linda Ronstadt/Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions(Asylum) ****
It is very difficult to pick out a contemporary folk or country CD these days that doesn't have Emmylou Harris's stamp of integrity and quality on it. Always an influential artist, Harris seems to have her very sensitive ears tuned to the tracks that carry the train that carries the music that matters.
Beginning with her own off-the-wall, critically-acclaimed, award-winning "Wrecking Ball" and "Spyboy" endeavors, Harris, over the last several years, has been prolific in both her production and her performing. During that time she has collaborated with a virtual who's who of music legends to produce instant classics. Among those are the recently released "The Pilgrim" (Marty Stuart), "Tribute to Gram Parsons: Return of the Grievous Angel," as well as the long-awaited release of "Trio II" with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt. The list could continue but the focus now is on her newest endeavor, "Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions," by Harris and Ronstadt.
As soon as I received the CD, I felt compelled to slide it into my CD player and take a listen. The package was devoid of the usual proliferation of promotional material extolling the benefits of this release. There were no glitzy glamour studio shots of the legendary pair in designer dresses, just minimal liner notes and nothing else to influence my listening (or reviewing) pleasure.
Contributors to "Wall" are some of the most sought-after writers in the industry, regardless of genre. Rosanne Cash, Jackson Browne, Paul Kennerly, Leonard Cohen, Patti Scialfa, Bruce Springsteen, Sinead O'Connor; along with Kate and Anna McCarrigle and others put pen to paper to create a product that should satisfy even the most jaded critic.
The first cut, "Loving the Highwayman," draws one, instantly, into the world of a woman who is "damned, damned, damned I am, loving the highwayman." Ronstadt carries this song with an indifferent style, almost enabling a sympathetic ear from the listener.
The sweet harmony of the title cut, "Western Wall," written by Rosanne Cash, is a tribute to the longtime friendship between the two singers. First Harris takes the lead then Ronstadt, then the voices are joined in a seemingly angelic chorus. The subsequent selections flow, one into the other without restraint, as subtle instrumentation serves to augment the songs instead of overpower them.
"Sweet Spot," the first single to be released from "Wall," was co-written by Harris and Jill Cunniff (Luscious Jackson). It begins with a subtle bass and cymbal riff for a few bars until Harris joins in with her crystalline voice: "Baby when you're down, I'll be around . . . Baby when your lost, I'll be your found." A nice touch is added when Ronstadt's voice is heard in the background after the first verse. It sets the song apart and immediately draws you into the wonder of a relationship blessed by respect and admiration, one that is complimented on each turn of the hand, and with each rising of the sun.
The most enigmatic song on this superb release is "1917." It is hauntingly reminiscent of "Prayer in Open D," "Lovin’ You Again" and "Jerusalem Tomorrow" from Harris’ 1993 release, "Cowgirl’s Prayer." It recounts the affair of a woman and a "soldier on a three day spree/who needs one night of cheap ecstasy/and a woman’s arms to hide him." Set in World War II it is the familiar story of romance among the ruins of war, with a submissive chorus that reminds us that "the morning always comes too soon/but tonight the war is over." Harris is at her best here, both telling and singing the story, which gives it an air of authenticity.
There are no duds on "Wall." While I realize that it will probably not get the airplay it deserves, I appreciate the fact that Asylum got the checkbook out and is doing their best to promote the release effectively.
As I sat down with my headphones plugged in and my feet on the top of the desk I wanted to single out a few cuts, but found myself, instead, very carefully listening to each song. I was entranced by the simplicity of the production and the marriage of integrity of voice and clarity of purpose exhibited by the two multi-awarded artists. When you pick this one up, plan to spend at least an afternoon with it, you'll be glad you did.