Emmylou, have you heard this record? I mean, outside the studio?
Now, I’m a huge Emmylou fan, and I truly believe she’s one of American music’s greatest treasures, from her early days with Gram Parsons to the various twists and turns of her legendary career, but this record is a collection of less-than-memorable songs, poorly produced, and then mastered in a fashion called “brickwalling,” which basically means there are no dynamics to the sound — it’s all loud. This is done for two reasons. One, it makes the songs sound like everything else on the radio — SCREAMING — as if anyone listens to the radio anymore. And it’s done to make mp3 files have some sort of range, but people rip Lady Gaga CDs, not Emmylou Harris’s.
Just spin the first song, “The Road,” her remembrance of the years with Parsons. A plodding mechanical drum sound, distorted guitar, and somewhere in the mush, the wonderful voice that is Emmylou Harris. There’s a standoffish, Coldplay vibe to this stuff, and it suits her not at all. And what is it about dogs that make people sing awful tunes to them? Elvis had “Old Shep,” a saccharine bit of nonsense early on in his career, and on Hard Bargain Harris warbles an ode to a “Big Black Dog,” and while we all appreciate her efforts on behalf of needy animals, they didn’t need this song. There are a few bright moments amid the banal, namely “Darlin’ Kate,” her tribute to friend Kate McGarrigle, and “My Name Is Emmett Till,” which is both pointed and poignant.
The record’s best moment isn’t even on the disc. Available as a bonus download, Emmylou joins forces with The Low Anthem on “To Ohio” from their Oh My God, Charlie Darwin album and you get the feeling she left it off the record for a reason — it’s better than anything else on it. A great song, with real instruments and gorgeous harmonizing, it achieves everything the other thirteen cuts don’t even try to attempt. It’s Emmylou as interpreter, a role that she has always been brilliant at.
Just wish there was more of it on Hard Bargain.
Emmylou Harris: www.emmylouharris.com