Emmylou Harris keeps fatalism at bay on Hard Bargain 

Farther Along

Farther Along

Genteel art has its place, and it's to Emmylou Harris' credit that her new full-length Hard Bargain drives at something beyond gentility — you could call it fatalism, maybe. Jay Joyce's production swathes Harris' tougher insights in clouds of guitars and background vocals. Still, you could be forgiven if you choose to skip over some of Harris' longueurs during Hard Bargain. She and Joyce try hard and attempt a few experiments, but the music sounds a little blurry.

With 2008's All I Intended to Be, Harris offered a straight folk-country record that examined the hard lives of ordinary people. "Broken Man's Lament" and "How She Could Sing Wildwood Flower" spoke in the voices of men who had lost their women — in both cases, the demands of career and calling took precedence over middle-class security. Hard Bargain finds Harris in touch with her mortality, as well the passing of other souls in whose voices she often sings.

Harris' "My Name Is Emmett Till" tells the infamous story of the African-American teenager from Chicago who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after speaking to a white woman. It's an effective song that benefits from Joyce's glossy yet minimalist production style. Bargain's music reveals Joyce's ear for simplicity, with oscillating two-chord structures and Giles Reaves' deft way with keyboards and percussion.

"The Road" catches Harris in a ruminative mood, as she recalls her relationship with Gram Parsons, with whom she sang in the early '70s. Joyce plays it as uncomplicated country rock, complete with electric guitar and electric piano. "How could I see a future then / Where you would not grow old," Harris sings. It's not bad, but "The Road" doesn't give the listener any idea of what made Parsons such a sly, subversive figure.

Still, Hard Bargain displays Harris' light touch as a vocalist, and her cover of Ron Sexsmith's great title track is a model of concision — a delight. Harris gets credit for choosing Joyce as a producer, but he covers up Harris' fatalism with beautiful sounds, and that's just not necessary.

Rating: 3.0/5.0

Email music@nashvillescene.com.

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