This week’s picks include two different responses to hard times, one from a leading American singer and the other from a gifted Icelandic composer.
Emmylou Harris – Hard Bargain (Nonesuch)
If there’s one thing that’s clear from Emmylou Harris’s newest album, it’s that she’s seen her share of life’s ups and downs. The often-autobiographical songs on her twenty-fifth release offer weary and wise retrospection on some painful memories. Perhaps that’s why she chose the title of the album from a cover called “Hard Bargain.” It’s all about the people who don’t let you down… especially during hard times.
The album begins with a look back at a crossroads in Harris’s life—the death of country rocker Gram Parsons, who served as a mentor to the young aspiring folk-singer in the ‘70s. Parsons’ accidental drug overdose at the age of 26 left Harris reeling. But as she mournfully yet matter-of-factly sings on “The Road,” “I carried on, you can’t be haunted by the past. People come, people go, and nothing ever lasts.”
Harris also pays tribute on the record to her longtime friend, Canadian songwriter Kate McGarrigle, who recently passed away after battling a rare form of cancer. And there’s the song, "New Orleans"-- a gritty anthem about the devastating events of Hurricane Katrina. But this album isn’t completely tinged with sadness. The song takes an unexpected turn toward optimism as Harris verbally shakes her fist in the face of the storm.
Tough times, bring it on. You’re no match for this feisty legend. “Hard Bargain” is the newest album from Emmylou Harris. - Picked by Katie Macpherson
Johann Johannson – The Miners’ Hymns (Fat Cat)
Being a miner in England in the 20th century was a surefire guarantee of hard times. The New York film maker Bill Morrison has done a beautiful, silent film about the miners’ struggles for humane working conditions and the right to unionize through archival footage in his movie “The Miners’ Hymns.” A Tribeca Film Festival entry, it is full of imagery of the miners’ own brass bands, used to rally the troops as they fought for social change. And it sports a haunting score for electronics and brass ensemble by Iceland’s Johann Johannson.
The track “They Being Dead yet Speaketh,” is a good example of Johannson’s ability to combine the acoustic instruments with electronics – something he’s done to great effect before, with strings, with brass band, and even with the sounds of an old mainframe computer. “The Miners’ Hymns,” since it accompanies a silent film, adds a huge amount of emotional weight to Bill Morrison’s images – perhaps nowhere more so than in the finale: “The Cause of Labour is the Hope of the World.” - Picked by John Schaefer