Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Two Voices, A Tough Sell For The Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions

The Good: Good voices, Some intriguing songs
The Bad: Leaves the listener feeling fairly indifferent.
The Basics: Great vocals and two exceptions to the guitar ballad rule make Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions worth listening to for anyone who likes musical storytelling.

As I near the end of my exploration of the music of Linda Ronstadt, I found myself listening to an album that was not purely a Ronstadt album. Usually, this might upset me or I might delay reviewing it until I had finished my reviews of the primary artist I was interested in. However, as Ronstadt is largely a cover artist, it is hard to object to listening to her and Emmylou Harris together. Indeed, this might actually be an album that Ronstadt has more creative control and influence over than some of her solo works.

The album is Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions and it is a collection of duets between Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. I have gleaned enough information in passing about Ronstadt - who has been my musical interest for the last few weeks - to know that there was a trio featuring Ronstadt, Harris and Dolly Parton and this is clearly not that. I know little about Emmylou Harris, save that she is a singer-songwriter. On Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions, that talent is underused.

With thirteen tracks clocking in at 50:40, Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions follows a format very familiar to listeners to Linda Ronstadt's music. Ronstadt and Harris balance their positions with lead and harmony vocals. Ronstadt pulls off eight of the lead vocals on the tracks and is credited with nothing more on the album outside harmonizing vocals. In contrast, Emmylou Harris provides primary vocals on five tracks, harmonizing vocals on the other eight. As well, she wrote or co-wrote three of the songs and plays electric and acoustic guitar on many of the tracks. Neither artist takes any production credit. Thus, it is something of a crapshoot to guess at how much creative control they had over this album.

Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions is a collection of folk-country tracks that have the flavor of Southwestern ballads to them. This album has a classic Country sound to it, which makes it sound more like folk than the current incarnation of Country. As a result, many of the songs are actually musical stories. Ronstadt and Harris sing of faith ("Sisters Of Mercy"), love and love lost ("He Was Mine," "Sweet Spot," and "Loving The Highway Man"), and they make depression rock on "Falling Down."

Indeed, one of the few things that unites this album well is the sense of imagery it contains in many of the lyrics. Take, for example, the lines "I have heard a million tales I have told a million more / Some of them must have been true / But I don't know anymore / I'm falling down / Do your dance on my head / Heavy steps of the dead / Everything the snow surrounds / Falling, falling, falling / I'm falling, I'm falling, I'm falling down" ("Falling Down"). They clearly establish a mood and a sense of helplessness that is defined by a strong sense of poetics.

The album is set up for this rather well from the beginning. The first track is essentially an epic poem called "Loving The Highway Man" and it opens beautifully with "The wind is a warning / These fields turn to sand / My family will not answer me now . . . Don't say where this ring came from / From whose shaking hand / Don't say who lies bleeding for me / Damned, damned, damned I am / Loving the highway man." The story vividly creates a tone that is exciting, dangerous and . . . very Western. It works and the album maintains a pretty high level of diction and storytelling through song.

Indeed, Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions collects tracks from some notable musical poets, like Jackson Browne, Roseanne Cash, Sinead O'Connor, and Bruce Springsteen. Indeed, it is Springsteen's lines on "Across The Border" that help wonderfully draw out the evocative images that Harris and Ronstadt seemed to be seeking on this album. Springsteen's lines "For me you'll build a house / High upon a grassy hill / Somewhere across the border / Where pain and memory . . . have been stilled" ("Across The Border") come alive in the deft hands - or more accurately, sensual vocals - of Ronstadt and Harris. If anything, the lyrics on this album are universally smart and evoke the concept that the pair seems to be going for with their musical stories with a Southwestern flavor.

All of the songs are translated well to the feminine voices of Ronstadt and Harris. Harris seems to take the higher works, leaving Ronstadt to take more of an alto position and that seems to work quite well for both of them. What Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions is truly about, though, is harmonizing. On each track, the vocals blend with one another and making music becomes a clear collaborative effort.

Indeed, what raises the bar for the album into the "recommend" status, even if it is very much an average endeavor, is that the harmonizing makes the music come alive. The listener begins to feel - especially with repetition of the disc - that these musical stories are part of a collective unconscious, an implicit message provided in part by the vocal diversity of the two performers who made this album.

The harmonizing vocals are almost enough to cover the otherwise bland instrumentals that almost entirely define Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions. Each track is a little guitar number that is dominated by the vocalists. There are very minimal drums and percussion on the album and no pianos. This is a very ballad-heavy album that does not seem to want to be anything more than that.

The problem with that is that the first track defies that pattern, setting the listener up for something quite different. "Loving The Highway Man" is loud and bold in its refrain, with strong drums accompanying each declaration of damnation. The vocal strength of the harmonies is punctuated by the percussion section in a way that does not happen on any other track and listening to that, one has the impression that this album is going to be more in the style of Loreena McKennitt than it becomes. That track is powerful and epic, while most of the rest of the album holds to very soft and simple ballads, utilizing the guitar to speak in the absence of more production or orchestration.

The instrumentals on "Falling Down" are the exception to the rule on Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions. That song blares with an electric guitar that rivals Ronstadt's wailing vocals and the song actually rocks. It has a tempo and flair and it is shocking in contrast to the more muted ballads that otherwise define this album. It is also one of the two standout tracks that make the album worth listening to.

The rest of the album is good, but less memorable, making "Falling Down" and "Loving The Highway Man" memorable and much of what carries the album into worthwhile territory. Anyone who likes strong female vocals will find something to love on this album.

For other Linda Ronstadt works, please check out my reviews of:
Heart Like A Wheel
Feels Like Home
Dedicated To The One I Love


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2013, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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