Music News


part 2 of 2
Emmylou Harris
Wrecking Ball

Harris has an exquisite voice that's especially moving when contrasted with the right male's: Witness the poignant majesty of her duets with the late Gram Parsons and the coloratura that she contributed to Bob Dylan's 1975 LP Desire. But solo records such as 1975's Pieces of the Sky and 1980's Roses in the Snow, although reliably intelligent and refined, never quite reached the heights of her collaborations; it was as if Harris needed someone with a gift equal to, and sympathetic with, hers to spur her on. And with Daniel Lanois--a producer who uses his mastery of studio techniques to amplify material rather than to hone it to a meaningless commercial sheen--she's found the ideal partner. Lanois, who also contributes his skillful playing on a slew of instruments, is supplemented on Ball by a small but discerning cadre of players, including Malcolm Burn and U2's Larry Mullen Jr.; together, they provide responsive backing that allows Harris to bloom. As usual, she's not terribly involved with tunesmithing: "Deeper Well," which she co-wrote with Lanois and Dave Olney, and "Waltz Across Texas Tonight," imagined with the help of Rodney Crowell, are her only two credits here. But her unerring ability to find compositions that she can enhance has never been more acute. Lucinda Williams's "Sweet Old World" is given a remarkably affecting reading, Jimi Hendrix's "May This Be Love" is transformed into a patient, droney hymn, Anna McGarrigle's "Goin' Back to Harlan" is smokey and genuine, and the title track by Neil Young is eerie and subtly captivating. Better, these qualities deepen over time; the disc is infused with too much feeling to absorb with just a few listens. And a few listens is all it's getting: Because of the rigid programming of today's radio and video outlets, Wrecking Ball is receiving little attention, and that's terribly frustrating. By going out on an artistic limb and refusing to work within the narrow confines of the current marketplace, Harris has made her best album ever--and she deserves to reap the rewards.

The Smashing Pumpkins
Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness

Don't you just want to take a belt to Billy Corgan? A lad with a whiny, Little Lord Fauntleroy voice and an egocentric view of the universe, he's not without talent, but the way he goes about exercising it might make even T. Berry Brazelton change his mind about corporal punishment. More to the point, he's made a major error by trying to carry a double album on his own skinny shoulders. To flourish in the two-disc format an artist must have oversize ambition and a sensibility diverse enough to justify a fan's additional time and attention--and while Corgan sports plenty of the former, he's seriously deficient when it comes to the latter. Musically, the set covers a lot of territory: mopey pianistics ("Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness"), mock-Electric Light Orchestra ornateness ("Tonight, Tonight"), guitar noodling a la Boston ("Here Is No Why"), Beatles-meet-Beach Boys pop ("Cupid De Locke," "Take Me Down") and, in "Porcelina of the Vast Oceans," epic bloat done just the way Kansas aficionados like it. But there's also enough filler to pad out the next three Pumpkins records, and a lyrical invariability that becomes more problematic as the package goes on. Over and over again, Corgan laments his sad, misunderstood life in terms that alternately embrace no-longer-potent punk axioms (like "Living makes me sick/So sick I wish I'd die," from "Jellybelly") and empty psychoanalytical babble (the "Galapogos" lines "I won't deny the pain/I won't deny the change"). The self-pity, which pops up in good songs (the single "Bullet With Butterfly Wings") and bad ("In the Arms of Sleep"), is so overwhelming that the safest course of action is to ignore the words entirely; at least then you can enjoy Corgan's best melodies (like the ones that keep "1979" and the unexpectedly informal "We Only Come Out at Night" going) without the fear of being stopped dead in your tracks by the kind of twaddle favored by the experts on Oprah. As for the rest of Mellon Collie (hate the title)--well, it proves that a little therapy can be a dangerous thing.

The Rolling Stones

In his recent interview with Rolling Stone publisher/Stones groupie Jann Wenner, Mick Jagger conceded that he didn't feel the same enthusiasm for music as he did when he was younger. What Wenner didn't ask next (but should have) was: If that's true, why the hell are you still doing it? Is it only for the dough? Because you don't have any other way to maintain your present lifestyle? And what about your fans? Don't they deserve more than that? On its surface, the answers Stripped provides to these questions aren't pretty. After all, the Stones have put out too many live albums already, and this one isn't brimming with fresh stuff; only one song on it was written after 1973. In fact, the only thing new about the Stones these days is the addition of bassist Darryl Jones, who replaced Bill Wyman. But Mick, Keith, Ron and Charlie clearly don't see the disc as a way to welcome Jones aboard; you'd need an electron microscope to even find the poor bastard's photo on the CD sleeve. Bottom line, this album exists for reasons of commerce, and commerce alone. And yet, thanks to experience, professionalism and other qualities not generally associated with rock and roll, Stripped is a solid listen. The selections are as canny as they are obscure ("Shine a Light" from Exile on Main Street is notably welcome), the sound quality is better than on any other Stones in-concert platter, and the performances are relaxed yet spirited. These guys don't need any more of your money, to be sure, and their decision to follow up a revitalizing tour with a concept as shopworn as this one doesn't speak volumes about their artistic integrity. But damn it, they can still play. It's up to you to decide if that's enough.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts