Emmylou Harris has been a respected country artist since her first major label release, 1975's Pieces of the Sky. Arriving right in time for the advent of country-rock and enjoying a hefty batch of advance credibility through her association with Gram Parsons, Harris has always been one of the most intelligent and just plain hip country acts around and an adroit interpreter of songs.
She's a keen judge of talent as well, able to pick players like Albert Lee and Rodney Crowell for her legendary Hot Band and producers like former Hot Band bassist Brian Ahern, so it was little surprise that she would want to work with Daniel Lanois, a producer renowned for his work with Peter Gabriel, U2, and the Neville Brothers. The product of their collaboration, Wrecking Ball, was one of the most talked-about and influential albums of last year and marked her growth past genre and entrance into the realm of Singer.
Building the Wrecking Ball is the video documentary of Lanois and Harris' time in the studio making the album, working with such artists as Steve Earle, Neil Young, and the McGarrigle sisters, Kate and Anna. Although some live band footage and vaguely hallucinatory music-video-type interpretations are presented, most of the insight into Building's "grand experiment" comes from watching Lanois, Harris, and the other musicians working in the living-room hominess of Lanois' Kingsway studios, pushing boundaries as they record songs from sources as diverse as Jimi Hendrix, Lucinda Williams (a heartbreaking "Sweet Old World"), and Bob Dylan.
Kingsway is nothing if not intimate: Candles flicker all over the place, illuminating high ceilings and antique furniture; during the day light filters in through lush vegetation and stained glass. The overall effect is as if you're sitting there unnoticed among the boxes of equipment and bundles of cables, looking over shoulders as the album comes together. Harris studies lyrics scrawled in a notebook, Lanois rollerblades around his kitchen in a Motsrhead T-shirt, and Neil Young drops by to sing harmony. U2's Larry Mullen is unobtrusively in the background, virtually unseen, and the McGarrigles show up to sing harmony on a beautiful version of their own "Goin' Back to Harlan."
The song that most embodies the album--the dark, almost sinister "Deeper Well"--combines impressionistic water imagery, ghostly shots of a gray-maned Harris (the fine bone structure of her face hinting at the Appalachian roots of the music), and the almost primitive pull of the tune itself, which is reminiscent of Leadbelly's "Out on the Western Plains." The message of the song is the message of the album, a restless desire for something more than the ordinary, a deeper point of origin and reference.
"We're in a country," Harris says at one point in the hour-long special. "So all records are country records in a way." Building the Wrecking Ball underlines this point beautifully.
Building the Wrecking Ball airs on KERA-Channel 13 Thursday, December 26 at 11 p.m.
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Rockabilly quartet Kim Lenz and her Jaguars has made good progress since forming in June, plucking cat music plums like opening for Carl Perkins and the Reverend Horton Heat, and now being invited to the Rockin' Rhythmbilly Weekender, a three-day rockabilly festival in Denver that includes acts like the Planet Rockers (a favorite back-up unit of Ronnie Dawson, who oughta know) and Austin's Derailers. The band--guitarist Mike Lester, drummer David Falk and bass slapper Blackie Graham (following more-or-less in the footsteps of his dad, Junior Graham, who was a local postwar jazz bassist)--prides itself on covering material so old and obscure that no one in the audience will have heard it before and has even begun working on original material--the Great Challenge of rockabilly.
The band's success must be a particular joy to Lester; while Graham and Falk were alums of the Rockin' Honky-Tonk Fools, Lester had "just been sitting in his room, playing his guitar" for years, Lenz says with a hint of amazement in her voice. "We were so lucky to get him. At first he was nervous--he had to get really drunk before he would go on stage--but he's getting more comfortable with things now." The festival happens July 11, 12, and 13...
Inescapable Butthole Surfers item #237b: according to Donnie Blair, Paul Leary is going to produce the next Hagfish album...the Old 97's are finally in the studio, holed up until the end of the year working on their next album, whereupon they'll dart up to Woodstock, New York, to mix it...
Street Beat wishes all y'all a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hannukah, a quality Kwaanza, a scintillating Solstice, and the very best of New Years from Matt_Weitz@dallasobserver.com. Pass the roast beast and drive safely.