Emmylou Harris,
Red Dirt Girl
(Nonesuch, 2000)

This is the kind of album that Emmylou Harris bestows upon us on occasion just as a reminder that she is one of the most eloquent and spirited icons of contemporary music, whether you want to put her in the country, rock or alt-country box.

After gracing us with an album whose beauty was almost too powerful for earthly ears (1995's Wrecking Ball), Emmylou's follow up, Red Dirt Girl, is almost ceaselessly engaging and every bit as gorgeous.

Of course, without Daniel Lanois at the helm this time around, the production isn't quite as subtle and can even become monotonous as song after song unfolds with the same drumbeats and buzzing guitars. At times, it sounds as though Malcolm Burn, who played on the Wrecking Ball sessions, is so focused on recreating that lush soundscape that he almost loses sight of his own talents.

Burn is no lightweight himself, producing Iggy Pop's brilliant American Caesar in 1993 for one, while successfully collaborating with a plethora of other big names. When he gets a tight grasp on those talents, such as on the enjoyably funky "I Don't Wanna Talk About It Now," the songs shine.

But what really what rescues the album from a prefabricated production is the effortless grace and purity of Emmylou's vocals, which cut through the songs like a knife. Her vocal performance on Red Dirt Girl is worthy of Grammy attention and fits her songwriting so well that it's obvious these songs seeped from her bones.

Most noteable are the whispering ballads, "Michaelangelo," the piano-fused "Tragedy" and the title track, with its heart-stopping imagery and lyrics rhythmic enough to induce hypnosis. The angelic humming that fades "Boy From Tupelo" will leave listeners stunned in the silence at the album's end, captured by a little flicker of hope that Emmylou isn't quite ready to hang up her boots just yet.

- Rambles
written by Gianmarc Manzione
published 22 February 2003

Buy it from Amazon.com.