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Emmylou Harris
 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 sadder.

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 of bliss.

 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 perhaps?).

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
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 release. (53:04)

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

Gram Parsons
 GP/Grievous Angel, Reprise CD 9 26108-2 (70:25)

Copyright © 1996 Peppercorn Press. All rights reserved.