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Emmylou Harris

Hard Bargain – 2011 (Nonesuch)

Reviewed by Michael Berick

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CDs by Emmylou Harris

If there is a one guarantee in the music world, it is that an Emmylou Harris will be filled with gorgeous singing. Since gracing Gram Parsons' solo albums in the early '70s, Harris' vocals have been among the most heavenly in contemporary music. Her latest effort, "Hard Bargain," is no exception. The disc soars on Harris' signature vocals, an exquisite intertwining of the earthy and ethereal.

What makes this different than most of Harris' 30-plus albums is that she sings mainly her own songs here, not covers. Not only are 11 of the 13 songs here her creations, but the often personal subject mater makes this album perhaps her most personal album to date.

The album begins with The Road, a loving recollection of her life with Parsons. "The road we shared together once will never be the same," she sings wistfully. On Darlin' Kate, Harris pays tribute to another beloved collaborator, Kate McGarrigle," who passed away in 2010. Harris lightens the mood with "Big Black Dog, a playful tale about a dog she rescued.

First person narratives also inform her story-songs, increasing their emotional directness. She makes Home Sweet Home, about being homeless, even more poignant by telling it through her own eyes. "People pass by/They don't see me here/And if they do/They wish I'd disappear," she sings. Similarly, My Name Is Emmett Till is told from Till's perspective instead of being a third person ballad as Bob Dylan's 1962 version was.

For this disc, Harris teamed up with Nashville-based producer Jay Joyce, who has worked with Harris' pal Patty Griffin as well as folks like John Hiatt, Jack Ingram and Eric Church. There is rich depth to the sound, although only Joyce, Harris and multi-instrumentalist Giles Reaves played on this effort. They have created an expansive approach that taps into Harris' Lanois-era adventurous experiments as well as more simple, Americana arrangements. New Orleans, about the city's recovery, gets propelled with an urgent rock beat that reflects the song's (and city's) vitality. Six White Cadillacs also holds a rootsy rock rhythm with a Sheryl Crow-vibe, while Goodnight Old World projects a tender, lullaby quality.

The disc's two covers fit in smoothly with Harris' originals. Ron Sexsmith's title track opens with the line "I'm a bit rundown but I'm okay" which speaks to the sense of mortality and survival coursing through this disc. Joyce's Cross Yourself, meanwhile, closes the album on a gently haunting note.

Matching her always-beautiful singing with a set of personal, emotionally-moving songs, "Hard Bargain" marks another triumphant recording in a career filled with memorable work.