When Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt recorded the first Trio in 1987, the collaboration made sense. Harris had been building a respectable country audience, Parton had earned a couple of number-one country hits and some acting credibility in 1980's Nine to Five, and Ronstadt wasn't too far gone from the country-rock gems she'd put out in the Seventies. The women sang like a heavenly choir, and the album was huge.
More than a decade later, Harris's career has far out-distanced those of her once-worthy sisters. In fact, she's the only reason to listen to Trio II. When she sings lead vocals--mostly on songs with traditional folk themes, brightened by fiddles and mandolins--those songs are harmless additions to her always-lengthening list of projects. Even when all of the women sing in equal harmony, such as on the album's opening "Lover's Return," a Carter Family composition from 1935, it's pleasant in an uninspired, commercial way--but it comes nowhere near the shimmering transcendence of the original Trio's traditional spiritual, "Farther Along." And things go straight to hell as soon as the piano kicks in on their rendition of Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush." Dolly Parton's lead vocal can't help but make a joke of Young's clearly drug-induced visions of "knights in armor coming" as he's "lying in a burned-out basement" hallucinating about drummers, archers, "silver spaceships," "children crying" and "colors flying."
Ronstadt's numbers are equally embarrassing. Loud and hideously overproduced, "The Blue Train" and "Feels Like Home" sound as if some delusional former diva, bolstered by anti-depressants, has grabbed the mike in a desperate attempt to regain some of her former glory. The result sounds like a nightmare that repeats itself once an hour on the worst imaginable smooth-jazz/light-rock radio station.
Harris has earned some grace and can be forgiven, but Parton and Ronstadt need serious redemption for this one.
Dance of the Headless Bourgeoisie
Daddy's little golden-locked girl; duct tape; a demand for cash from a foreign faction with ambiguous political beliefs; "We'll send you her little pinkie/You can shove it up your ass and call it stinky." Tell me, music sleuths, where have we heard about this kind of thing before? No, it's not the mythical Boulder meanies who took sweet little JonBenet away from her loving parents. It's "Dance of the Headless Bourgeoisie," as relentlessly bombastic a title cut as I've heard since Guy Fawkes Day.
"Two dummies, a joker, one dink and a myriad of lost souls" make up Vancouver's NoMeansNo who, like Guy, the shy and suicidal prankster, opt for dynamite as their instrument of choice. Paranoid, blunt and brutal, this holler-along's fervent and choral rejoinder--"Blow up your head!"--could damn near pass for Screamin' Jay Hawkins imitating Ted Kaczynski. It's possibly worth the price of admission in itself.
Introduced by obscure credits (the names of brothers Rob and John Wright, who've been with the band since its 1981 start, appear nowhere on the liner), this refreshingly nameless lot pounds out a tight brand of mostly punk, hootenanny and straightforward rockin' numbers at a sustained and angry clip. The Wrights flip razzleberries several times, making such proud declarations as "I'm an asshole!" or menacing threats like "Look in my eyes!" There's also a particularly smokin' ditty called "Give Me the Push" and a splinter of hope in "One Fine Day." So, all you terrorist buffs, round up the usual suspects, including shopping malls, zombies, clowns and credit cards, because here's more society music from Jello Biafra's big and scary octopus. C'mon in: The water's bleak.
--John La Briola
In many ways, 1997's Trailer Park, the recording that established Ms. Orton in the States, was a standard singer-songwriter offering, but the moody, thoroughly beguiling dance-music effects layered atop many of the tracks made it possible to pretend otherwise--at least for a while. Shortly thereafter, Orton eagerly signed up with the Lilith Fair, and in an interview with Westword ("Orton Hears a Who," August 14, 1997), she implied that she was quite enjoying the opportunity to perform without being drowned in electronic sweetening. She wasn't kidding: Central Reservation restricts the techno-twiddling to just a couple of tunes, to its ultimate detriment. Although the disc doesn't quite establish her as a Jewel in the rough, it spends too much time on the roads most traveled.
It takes a while to reach this conclusion, however. "Stolen Car," the first cut, sticks mainly to traditional rock instrumentation, but Orton's cool vocals, a memorably dark melody, guest Ben Harper's sinuous electric guitar contributions and evocative imagery ("You were sitting/Your fingers like fuses/Your eyes were cinammon") make for a fine ride. Likewise, "Sweetest Decline" sprinkles just enough dourness among the strings, bouzouki and piano stylings to skirt banality; its prettiness isn't empty. But eventually, the familiarity of Orton's musical choices becomes something of a drag. "Pass in Time" leans too heavily on Van Morrison circa Astral Weeks to establish its own identity, "Love Like Laughter" goes Natalie Merchant bland in ways that Sean Read's typical Blonde on Blonde keyboard lines only accentuate, and "Blood Red River" is like PJ Harvey minus the creepy drama--which is to say, not much.
Synthesizer programming isn't a magic bullet: Witness "Central Reservation (The Then Again Version)," an okay tune that Ben Watt's beep-and-squawk remix doesn't manage to transform into anything more than that. In the end, Orton is at her best when she takes chances with both her music and her production. Only then will people be able to praise her without reservation.