I interviewed filmmaker Stephen Kijak in Austin during SXSW last month (my review of his music doc Scott Walker: 30 Century Man will be out in the next few days, in time for you East Coasters to catch it at the Tribeca Film Festival in May), and in the midst of a long rambling discussion of basically every single bit of music he and I had listened to in our entire lives, he asked if I was familiar with Wrecking Ball by Emmylou Harris.
Now, despite my anti-country black-nail-polish youth, I got the Emmylou love a long time ago, and her live Lillith Fair duet of "Angel" with Sarah McLachlan owns me body and soul. Nonetheless, I was genuinely unfamiliar with Wrecking Ball. It was produced by Daniel Lanois, who I knew originally for his work with Brian Eno, but who also has produced Peter Gabriel, U2, Ron Sexsmith, Bob Dylan, and a long list of others. It got released in 1995 - hell, it won a Grammy - but let's just say 1995 was a rough year for me and leave it at that.
Anyway, I got home from SXSW and immediately plunged into covering the pet food recall story, and only a few days ago got around to playing the Wrecking Ball CD I ordered from Amazon based on Stephen's raves about it.
Then I fell down dead.
This album is just beautiful. I've heard complaints about the sound mix/production value, but on a marginally decent system (mine), it sounded beautiful. Hell, it sounded great on my computer speakers.
Of course Harris is best known as a country singer, but this album completely transcends genre. Lanois' production is as atmospheric as anything he's ever done, but in combination with the strong melodies of the songs, and Harris' killer vocals, the album manages to sound edgy and completely accessible at the same time.
Wrecking Ball isn't exactly a hidden treasure. The biggest names in music collaborated on it... U2's Larry Mullen is keeping the beat, Lanois produced and wrote two of the songs, Neil Young sang along. There are a number of covers - including Bob Dylan's "Every Grain of Sand" and Young's "Wrecking Ball."
Harris' voice has never been clearer, more nuanced, more expressive. And it's not just that she has a great voice; her phenomenol phrasing brings every bit of meaning to the lyrics. I'm not sure there is a better female vocalist recording today.
If you held a gun to my head, I'd probably say that "All My Tears," "Deeper Well," and "Wrecking Ball" are the strongest cuts on the album. But most likely I'd just have to let you shoot me, because there's not a single track on here that isn't pure brilliance.
I you, like me, missed it, you should fix that. And if you didn't miss it, but haven't heard it in a while, you should fix that, too.
And I may need to send Stephen Kijak roses or something.