Wrecking Ball, Elektra CD 61854-2
k. d. lang
All You Can Eat, Warner Bros. CD 46034-2
Moving out of the country
It's a disconcerting experience these days trying to find CDs
by artists bold enough to cross the border separating popular
and country music. k.d. lang started as a kind of a western swinger,
released one great album, Torch and Twang, produced by
Owen Bradley in a late 1950's Nashville style, and most recently
wrote much of the soundtrack to Gus Van Zant's failed adaptation
of Tom Robbins' Only Cowgirls Get the Blues. Her latest,
All You Can Eat, is in the rock section of the local Tower
store. Emmylou Harris was discovered and sang background vocals
for Gram Parsons' too-brief solo career. She's had a successful
career with simple country covers of everyone from Bill Monroe
to Springsteen to John Fogerty. Her latest, Wrecking Ball,
is produced by Daniel Lanois, best known for U2's Joshua Tree,
and features covers of Dylan, Neil Young, and Jimi Hendrix. It's
in the country section. Go figure.
Actually, the problem isn't only the fault of the record industry;
narrow-minded followers of one camp or another are also too blame.
Emmylou Harris provided beautiful backing vocals to Parsons' wonderful
Grievous Angel and G.P. LPs (now available on a
single CD) and witnessed his despair at being booed off the Grand
Ole Opry stage. She's had a great deal more success as a solo
artist, and is well regarded in the traditional country community.
Those folks had better be ready to bend a bit, because Wrecking
Ball is a wonderful stretch from an artist who could very
easily have played it safe.
From the very first note of the opening track, you know something
special is up. The sound is different, spacious and open, with
the vocal laid straight down the center. A martial drum, a ringing
guitar, and a gurgling bass accompany Emmylou's plaintive vocals-this
is a very different type of country music. Steve Earle's "Goodbye"
follows, Earle's finger picking acoustic guitar dancing around
the basic slow feedback guitar of Lanois. Harris mournfully sings
about a departed lover, remembering all the good times but not
able to remember whether they'd ever actually said goodbye. It's
a standard kind of country line that could be milked to weepy
fullness, but Harris pulls back, the restraint making it all the
Neil Young's cracked vocal lead on his own version of "Wrecking
Ball" benefited greatly from Linda Rondstadt's background
sweetener. Here, an uncharacteristically controlled Young backs
Harris' lovely lead, and Malcom Burn on vibes puts a little shimmer
on the mysterious tune. Despite all the modern touches, much of
the CD is deeply rooted in Americana, somewhat reminiscent of
The Band. A trio of songs ("All My Tears," "BlackHawk"
and "Deeper Well") evoke the tragic Native American
epic in either lyric or tone. For Bob Dylan's "Every Grain
of Sand," the martial drumbeat returns, and for some reason
the song reminds me of a slow Civil War march.
There are a few more traditional country tunes-Anna McGarrigle's
"Goin' Back to Harlan" and Lucinda Williams' "Sweet
Old World"-but even these are altered by the production.
For me, the greatest revelation is the druggy Jimi Hendrix composition
"May This Be Love (Waterfall)." Lanois provides overlapping
fuzztone guitars and backing vocals, and Harris migrates the song
from Jimi's stoned out reverie to a beautiful and very human plea
Wrecking Ball is a wonderful work, and one that grows more
pleasurable on each listening.
I readily admit to being a longtime fan of k.d. lang, eagerly
awaiting each release. It seems like an awfully long time since
1992's Ingenue broke k.d. into the mainstream and yanked
her far away from her country roots. All You Can Eat definitely
follows in those footsteps, perhaps too much so. The production
is very similar, the only obvious difference being a bit punchier
(and ominously mechanical) drumbeat. The same chugging cellos
and gorgeous soaring vocals are laid over Ben Mink's elegantly
tasteful arrangements, each song highlighted by one novel instrumental
touch (a bit of E-bow, "glass & fax loops", or ukelin
What's to quarrel with? Individually, each song is a pleasant
enough listen, but the songwriting just isn't particularly memorable.
There isn't a single song approaching the pathos of "Constant
Craving" from Ingenue, admittedly a hard act to follow. And
despite this being her first major release since coming out, each
song is still a generic love song to a generic, unnamed lover-"I'm
all right if you're OK" goes one inspirational lyric; "How
bad could it be if you should fall in love with me" is another.
It's clear that lang and her long time collaborator Ben Mink are
both major talents in search of a genre. Unfortunately, modern
popular music doesn't have a convenient slot for a woman with
a great voice and (thankfully) no interest in becoming a dance
music diva. To her credit, k.d. lang is not content to live her
life as Patsy Clone, but she needs to find a niche that will showcase
her powerful voice with songs that matter. There's enough going
on here to make this CD worth checking out, but the next one needs
to follow quickly and shift directions. --Bill Kuhn
production notes & song titles
Emmylou Harris, vocals; Daniel Lanois, guitars, mandolin, dulcimer,
bass, percussion, vocals; Malcolm Burn, keyboards, tambourine,
vibes, slide guitar, tom tom, bass, drums; Tony Hall, bass; Larry
Mullen, Jr., drums; Brian Blade, drums; Daryl Johnson, vocals;
guest artists including Steve Earle, Neil Young, Kate and Anna
McGarrigle and Lucinda Williams.
Produced by Daniel Lanois, engineered by Malcom Burn, Sandy Jenkins,
Mark Howard and Trina Shoemaker, mastered by Joe Gastwirt. 1995
Where Will I Be | Goodbye | All My Tears | Wrecking Ball | Goin'
Back to Harlan | Deeper Well | Every Grain of Sand | Sweet Old
World | May This Be Love (Waterfall) | Orphan Girl | Blackhawk
| Waltz across Texas Tonight
k. d. lang
k. d. lang, vocals, harp, banjo, guitar, ukelin, other stuff; Ben
Mink, guitars, violin, viola, urhu, ukelele, other stuff; Teddy
Borowiecki, keyboards; John Friesen, cello; David Pitch, bass
guitar; Graham Boyle, percussion; Randall Stoll, drums.
Produced by k.d. lang and Ben Mink, co-produced, recorded and
mixed by Marc Ramaer, mastered by Bob Ludwig. 1995 release. (36:18)
If I Were You | Maybe | You're OK | Sexuality | Get Some | Acquiesce
| This | World of Love | Infinite and Unforeseen | I Want It All
of related interest
GP/Grievous Angel, Reprise CD 9 26108-2 (70:25)