Friday, February 15, 2013
File #4: Linda Ronstadt & Emmylou Harris, Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions (1999, Asylum/Elektra)
After taking a week to remove our heads from the condom-strewn New York sewers of Lou Reed, we touch down locally—at the Arizona Inn, specifically—for the crisp, meditative desert of Linda Ronstadt & Emmylou Harris. Theirs is a collaboration so pristine, so lovely, and so unwavering that the connective ampersand is requisite.
Linda, of course, is a native daughter, and her significance to Tucson is unimpeachable. (I will leave it to the comment section, hopefully, to flesh out her local legacy.) Throughout the 1970s, Ronstadt made her mark in the incestuous Los Angeles music scene, backing Zevon here, playing with the Eagles there, before launching a juggernaut career that revealed her as preeminent musical interpreter and vibrant chanteuse. Ronstadt’s output has maintained a prolific clip, but her knockout releases from the ‘70s alone (in this case, over the course of three years) are stunning: Heart Like a Wheel (1974), Prisoner in Disguise (1975), and Hasten Down the Wind (1976). Ronstadt’s throaty vibrato is unparalleled, and its beguiling and calming powers at least partially explain her legions of fans and millions of records sold.
Harris was no slouch either, and Luxury Liner (1977) is as enchanting as anything in the ‘70s songstress oeuvre. A more traditionally countrified twang, Harris was no stranger to the rarefied air of the heavyweight ‘70s, singing backup on Dylan’s Desire (1976) and performing a stunning take on “Evangeline” with the Band the same year for The Last Waltz (released in 1978).
Now, Ronstadt and Harris are longtime friends and had collaborated before Western Wall on Trio (1987)—a treat of shoulder-padded country-western with Dolly Parton rounding out the triplet. The group gave it another go the same year as Western Wall with Trio II, which contains an evocative take on Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush.” Western Wall, however, is required listening; more so for local, musically inclined denizens. Recorded at the exquisite Arizona Inn, the album, appropriate given its principals, is mostly a covers affair. Harris does contribute a couple songs (one with the help of the McGarrigle sisters), but the album’s breadth, dedication, and generosity elevate it above a somnambulant stroll through the material. For instance, opener “Loving the Highway Man” would succeed simply by plucking a brilliant if overlooked track from Andy “Wall of Voodoo” Prieboy’s solo debut—a singer/songwriter who it would be hard to argue had much cache in ’99 (which has certainly, and sadly, dissipated even more in the intervening years)—but the track truly excels by pulling the listener through its chilling tale of ruination with ethereal, haunted vocals and whimpering, hallucinatory guitars.
That Western Wall is now out-of-print seems, on paper only, a slight—on paper because, we dinosaurs of tactile music must remind ourselves, most listeners prefer their music digitally, where the album is readily available (though it is dubbed “The Tuscon Sessions” on Spotify). And though the album initially did well critically, its commercial failure is troubling and has certainly contributed to its peripheral role in the canons of both Ronstadt and Harris. Sure, the album cover and publicity photos throughout may contribute to the adult-contemporary vibe the album seems to perspire, but the jangly snap of “For a Dancer,” aided by Neil Young’s harmony and harmonica (how harmonious of him), or the way the pair amplify Leonard Cohen’s “Sisters of Mercy,” making it a muscular accordion waltz, are unparalleled by most neophytes in the field. If it’s adult-contemporary folk, and it may well be, then it’s the kind of stellar, top-notch quality that is worth indulging.
Nevertheless, Ronstadt’s pouty turn on “He Was Mine” and Harris’ sleepy take of “Valerie” grow a bit tiresome beyond a handful of listens, but the other tracks or, in the parlance of the album, “sessions” reveal endless hidden beauties. In part, the roster of studio talent, beyond Young even, is too accomplished for the songs not to captivate, and the attentive ear of producer Glyn Johns appropriately acquiesces to the contributors while mostly reigning in any surplus. From the fevered cracks in the soldier ballad “1917,” to the sparkling, unfolding melodies of Sinead O’Connor’s hymn “This is to Mother You,” to the shaggy dust waltz of Springsteen’s “Across the Border,” Western Wall has, like the city that domesticated it and the women who spearheaded it, much to love.