Beginning with the release of the rock-oriented Wrecking Ball, Emmylou’s music has been very hit or miss for me. I disliked that 1995 project, which Emmylou herself describes as her “weird album”, and I was similarly disenchanted with 2000’s Red Dirt Girl and 2003’s Stumble Into Grace, although all three albums did have their bright spots. All I Intended To Be, which reunited her with Brian Ahern, was a step back in the right direction for those of us who had longed for another Brand New Dance or Cowgirl’s Prayer, but anyone who thought that her 2008 album was the beginning of a journey back to more traditional country music will perhaps be slightly disappointed with her newest offering Hard Bargain.
I wasn’t sure what to expect with this album, so I came to it without any preconceived notions about the style of music. Having listened to it a few times, I’m not sure how to classify this genre-defying project except to say that by and large, it isn’t country. It’s not the sort of music I generally enjoy listening to, but nevertheless, I found Hard Bargain to be a quite pleasant listening experience. Emmylou wrote the majority of the songs, and only three musicians play all of the instruments on the album: Jay Joyce, who produced the project, Giles Reaves, and Emmylou herself. Although there are some production missteps along the way, the extremely limited number of musicians participating helps them to avoid falling into the trap of wall-of-sound overproduction, such as the kind that plagued Wrecking Ball.
Nearly forty years after she was recruited by Gram Parsons, her mentor still casts a long shadow over Emmylou’s music, as evidenced in the album’s opening track and lead single “The Road”, which talks about the time they spent touring together:
I can still remember
Every song you played
Long ago when we were younger
And we rocked the night away
How could I see a future then
Where you would not grow old
With such a fire in our bellies
Such a hunger in our soul.
… I still think about you
Wonder where you are
Can you see me from some place
Up there among the stars
One of the more heavily-produced tracks on the album, “The Road” has some Daniel Lanois Wrecking Ball-esque production flourishes. It has not charted and is not likely to garner much airplay from country radio.
More stripped down are “Home Sweet Home” and “My Name Is Emmett Till”, a 60s-style folk number that tells the story of a 14-year-old hate crime victim in pre-Civil Rights era Mississippi. “New Orleans”, which Emmylou co-wrote with Will Jennings deals with the floods that ravaged that city after Hurricane Katrina. It’s a surprisingly upbeat-sounding song given the subject matter, and somewhat distracting to listen to due to the way the recording was mixed. The track is somewhat heavy on percussion, and Emmylou’s voice sounds very faint, as if it were recorded through a telephone line. This same flaw plagues the title track and “Cross Yourself”, but not to the same extent as “New Orleans”.
Emmylou is well known for her animal rescue work,a subject that is near and dear to my own heart, and one that is the topic of “Big Black Dog”, a homage to a rescued canine. Large black dogs are the least likely to adopted from shelters, but as Emmylou correctly points out, they can make wonderful pets:
Big black dogs they’re everywhere
Lookin’ for a home they’re hungry and scared
All they need is food and attention
They’ll give you back love
Sometimes redemption I swear
You could find it there
In a big, black dog.
Despite the somewhat somber lyrics, this is an upbeat, almost happy-sounding and surprisingly catchy number.
The most poignant song in this collection and my favorite is “Darlin’ Kate”, Emmylou’s tribute to her good friend and frequent collaborator, the late Kate McGarrigle, who died last year. The, the simple lyrics and acoustic arrangement enhanced by Jay Joyce’s ganjo (six-string banjo) playing, give the track a more country feel than most of the others songs on the album.
I seem to be a sucker for bonus tracks; for some reason they usually end up being some of my favorite tracks, and “To Ohio”, which appears on the deluxe version of Hard Bargain, is no exception. Breaking with the three-musicians-only formula of the rest of the album, Emmylou is joined on this track by the folk band The Low Anthem, who provide very nice duet and harmony vocals. There aren’t any musician credits for this track in the CD booklet, but the production is a little more filled-out on this track, so I suspect the band members are playing some of the instruments.
Overall, while I enjoyed this album quite a bit, it doesn’t quite stack up with the very best of Emmylou’s past work, which admittedly, is a very high standard. Though I would have preferred another All I Intended To Be, or better yet, something closer to the type of albums she regularly released in the 70s, Hard Bargain rates higher than most of Emmylou’s post-1995 work, and should satisfy most of her longtime fans.
Hard Bargain can be purchased from Amazon and iTunes.