Wrecking Ball seemed like a pivotal record in singer Emmylou Harris' history when it was released in 1995 and it is no less important now 20 years later. It is said that great records may go out of print but they rarely go out of style, and Wrecking Ball still radiates with its sheer beauty. Assisted by legendary producer Daniel Lanois
("The Medicine Man") and a band of musicians that have played with him either on his previous solo records or on records that he has produced up to that point, highlighted by bassist Tony Hall, producer/multi-instrumentalist Malcolm Burn, drummers Larry Mullen, Jr, of U2 fame, and Brian Blade
(who's been a regular drummer in most of Lanois' bands and projects), among other artists, Harris finds beautiful and fiercely original music within other people's songs, nabbing songs by well-known artists such as Bob Dylan
, Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams, cherry picking slightly obscure but nevertheless alluring works that stand shoulder to shoulder to really great original songs written by Lanois.
The conventions and the expectations regarding cover songs can vary from a genre to genre, and what is noticeable is that folk music, more so than any other vocal genre, encourages its artists to cover one another where some of the songs pass on from a singer to singer, from a generation to generation. While some songs shine bright and are destined to be instant classics as soon as they are recorded, some songs, as has been seen numerous times, don't find their natural home until they are recorded by other artists. And yet, regardless of the diverse source material, this record feels like a coherent record of originals, mainly because Harris makes the songs completely her own. This rather eclectic choice of relatively obscure songs by renowned artists and by newcomers showcases that Harris concentrated more on the songs' emotional content and strength rather than filling the list with songs that people know best.
The set has aged very well and it retains its power to haunt and to stun. She mines wide, deep and sometimes dark regions in these songs. Just like singer Gram Parsons, with whom she is forever linked to, and who in his own time took the path less travelled by bringing disparate and sometimes contrasting elements of rock and country music together (under the moniker of Cosmic American Music) so does she bring together different strands of music together in all of her records which has made her different from the lot. Even though she is primarily a country artist she never stood still in one place or genre. By her own admission "She smoked country music, but she never inhaled it" revealing that she was influenced by a broader scope of artists from different genres from country blues to folk and protest songs. And it seems that blurred borders are a commonplace on Wrecking Ball, where rock, folk, country and blues melt which is why it was placed in a category as wide as Americana when it was released back in 1995.
What drives these songs, apart from the innovative production, is really Harris' voice that cuts through and breathes new life to these songs. Her voice is powerful, vulnerable, frail, yearning, a combination that very few people can manage. As best exemplified here, it can cover a wider emotional spectrumit can be sad and knowing like a blues crooner, as on Williams' "Sweet Old World," where it adds a kind of lonesome depth, or Neil Young's "Wrecking Ball" or it can be dark and eerie, as on "Deeper Well" and tender, as on Earle's "Goodbye" or Dylan's "Every Grain of Sand" (both feature "Goodbye" auteur, singer/guitarist Steve Earle on acoustic guitar).
Apart from the cover songs, the set features three original songs written by Lanois which poses the question how committed was Lanois to making this record? The answer is simple: very. In his memoir Soul Mining he writes that he was determined to make Wrecking Ball a masterpiece, which he did. Lanois is legendary for the commitment and passion he invests into records he produces thus inspiring artists to deliver and achieve much more than they first thought was possible. He is a master of strange juxtapositions on his records and productions, ignores prevailing fashions, he has a feel for atmosphere, space and depth and the approach to rhythm is what has made him a unique producer in this domain with his own signature. But there is a key component to his studio wizardry where as much as technology can play a great role in the music making, at the heart of it, the music always comes down to the people who create it, and much less the tools they are using.
Lanois' own original, the ballad "Where Will I Be," is a rambling lament that opens this record where Harris' vocal rises above the band carries it with a striking emotional delivery. Later he even recorded his own version of this song for his own record Here is What is (Red Floor Records, 2008). A real treat to these songs is Mullen, Jr's distinct drumming which contributes to the otherworldly and distinct feel of these songs. Needless to say, but the songs that Emmylou Harris sang with Gram Parsons had a great influence on his band. Regardless of the U2 produced records, Lanois is a great fan of his drumming style (as best seen on the Classic Album: The Joshua Tree documentary) and has welcomed Mullen, Jr's drumming previously on his first solo record Acadie (Anti-, 1989).
This is best exemplified on the second original track and the then pilot single "Deeper Well." This song is a triumph both lyrically and musically. With its primal sounding drums, subtle and expansive atmospherics, distorted guitars, the song has a certain Scott Walker- like spookiness, and over it Harris intones a tune of the simplest and most perfect beauty. It really is a dark gem and there is nothing that even remotely resembles like it. Nobody writes two of those in one lifetime.
The newly remastered 3-disc edition blossoms all over again. It features a bonus disc with plenty of demos, alternate takes (including two country stomp versions of "Deeper Well"), unreleased songs such as singer/poet Leonard Cohen's "The Stranger Song," "Gold," (an original written by Harris which was released later on All I Intend to Be (Nonesuch, 2008)), guitarist Richard Thompson
's "How Will I Be Simple Again" and a dramatically rearranged cover of Lanois' Acadie opener, "Still Water." The re-mastering of this 2014 reissue is just right, with no issues of unnecessary loudness that often diminishes the bright light of reissued classics.
What is evident from this time distance is that this record was a starting point for many things that happened in the aftermath for many of the protagonists that brought it to fruition. The creative partnership between Harris and Lanois spilled over onto other records and songs, such as Willie Nelson
's Teatro (Island, 1998), produced by Lanois and on which she sang backing vocals on all but a few songs, including the cover of "The Maker," from Lanois' first record; "I Love You," from Lanois' Shine (Anti-, 2003); and "Marathon Kiss," a song that Lanois wrote for his production of Marianne Faithful's Vagabond Ways (Instinct Records, 1999), and which also featured Harris' background singing.
On the other hand, Malcolm Burn, who has been Lanois' partner in crime on many records, produced Harris' following two records Red Dirt Girl(Nonesuch, 2000) and Stumble Into Grace, (Nonesuch, 2003) and steered her towards writing songs of her own. Also, Neil Young sang backing vocals on two songs, his own "Wrecking Ball" and Lucinda Williams' "Sweet Old World." Young was on Lanois' wish list of artists that he would like to produce and it took 15 years for that to happen, with the sonically charged and brilliant Le Noise (Reprise, 2010). "Orphan Girl" is a song written by the then-unknown singer Gillian Welch. She had entered a songwriting contest which she lost but the tape somehow found its way to Harris' hands and eventually it catapulted her career as an artist in her own right.
On Wrecking Ball, Harris and Lanois merge past and present in honorable fashion. The choice of material proved to be a revelation and in her hands, these songs found new life. Regardless of the many auteurs, what unites these songs is Harris' ability to deliver the sentiments interwoven within the fabric of the songs with a stunning intimacy. Every song sounds ideally and carefully concise, adding to the effect of the whole. Her willingness to experiment was set to precedent and the risk paid off.
When Wrecking Ball was released in 1995 it was a record that was lauded for its innovative production, soulful performances, haunting, spacious soundscapes and the colorful and imaginative arrangements of previous classic songs. Along the way, it also smashed many preconceptions of how a traditional artist should sound like or his/her song choices, and as a result the record alienated most country music critics while the rest praised its innovative and bold production and approach. It was a career changing record and artistic triumph for Harris that helped her rebuild her career and it was Grammy Awarded in 1996 for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
Building the Wrecking Ball, the third disc in this Wrecking Ball reissue, is a firsthand experience and more than a glimpse into the creative process, the locations, circumstances and the people that contributed to the creation of this watershed recording. Back in 1995, Lanois' brother, producer and sound engineer Robert Bob Lanois, besides providing the artwork for this record, directed the process of videotaping the sessions and the interviews with the musicians. Back in the '60s, both he and his brother built a recording studio in their parent's house and they recorded a lot of music before the studio was later moved to the famed Grant Avenue. Besides having credentials as a record producer, Bob Lanois also directed music videos, shot the Wim Wenders' Teatro with Willie Nelson performances and also directed Concerts for a Landmine Free World, a concert film that evidenced this tour instigated by Emmylou Harris for the benefit of the anti-landmine movement she supported. And these days, it seems that Daniel Lanois is videotaping most of his sessions and performances with the help of photographer/cameraman Adam CK Vollick who has helped him to helm, amongst other videos, the Here is What is documentary and Neil Young's Le Noise film and the forthcoming Hallelujah Train.
What the older Lanois captured on this film (here, in DVD format) is the process of the record's birth. It tells the fascinating, behind the music story of making of Wrecking Ball, the ideas that drove it, interviews, sessions, rehearsals and live performances. The interviews reveal how Daniel Lanois came to produce it and what effect Harris intended to achieve with it. The sessions began in Nashville, as a warm up to the recording sessions that took place at Kingsway Studios, a studio in New Orleans, located in an exotic Victorian mansion that Daniel Lanois owned. Lanois is known for recording and working in special surroundings, exotic locations like the Slane Castle or Bath Studios that gave birth to records such as U2's The Unforgettable Fire (Island, 1984), and Peter Gabriel's So (Real World, 1986) and Us (Real World, 1993). That studio/mansion in New Orleans also gave birth to many watershed recordings like Bob Dylan's Oh Mercy (Columbia, 1989), the Neville Brothers' Yellow Moon (Columbia, 1988) and the famed David Sylvian
What is evident is how people feel unthreatened and unintimidated by Bob Lanois' camera pacing around capturing glimpses and dialogues. Harris is very open when questioned by the camera, shedding light on many issues. Sometimes the camera captures informal dialogues or chatter, like the conversation between Harris and Danny Lanois, who asks "is this a country record" and she replies "We're in a country, so we are all doing country. Country is a blend of many genres." There are funny moments like Daniel Lanois wearing a Motorhead T-shirt, circling in the kitchen on roller-skates, having breakfast and his mind somewhere else, but answering questions thrown at him.
Additionally, the music itself is presented in a number of ways: bits and pieces of the recording process, full rehearsals and the live performances in the support of the record. There are shots of Neil Young singing backing vocals, Steve Earle strumming a guitar, Mullen, Jr. playing percussion, engineer Malcolm Burn working out ideas and avoiding camera, and Kate and Anna McGarrigle (the McGarrigle Sisters) singing vocals. This previously unavailable film was rarely broadcast and some of the video footage was used as video clips, as with the song "Deeper Well." Again, the documentary provides a glimpse into the creative surroundings and people that gave birth to this seminal record that not only was an influence on Harris' career, but was a great influence on other records and musicians also. Wrecking Ball, together with the Cowboy Junkies' Trinity Sessions(RCA, 1988), also opened new doors and frontiers for artists, to approach songs in different and innovative ways.
Track Listing: CD1 (Wrecking Ball Remastered): Where Will I Be?; Goodbye; All My Tears; Wrecking Ball; Goin' Back to Harlan; Deeper Well; Every Grain of Sand; Sweet Old World; May This Be Love; Orphan Girl; Blackhawk; Waltz Across Texas Tonight. CD2 (Deeper Well: The Wrecking Ball Outtakes): Still Water; Where Will I Be (alternate version); All My Tears; How Will I Ever Be Simple Again; Deeper Well; The Stranger Song; Sweet Old World (alternate version); Gold; Blackhawk (alternate version); May This Be Love (acoustic); Goin' Back to Harlan; Where Will I Be (alternate version); Deeper Well. DVD: Building the Wrecking Ball documentary.
Personnel: Emmylou Harris: vocals, acoustic guitar, harmony vocals; Daniel Lanois: mandolin, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, bass, dulcimer, duet vocals, chant vocals, percussion, bass pedals; Malcolm Burn: piano, tambourine, vibes, organ, synthesizer, keyboards, slide guitar, bass, drums, harmony vocals, Larry Mullen, Jr.: cymbal, hand drum; Tony Hall: percussion, bass, stick drum; Daryl Johnson: high harmony vocals: tom tom,drum kit, bass pedals, backing vocals,harmonic bass, harmony vocals; Brian Blade: drums, Indian hand drum;Steve Earle: acoustic guitar, Sam O'Sullivan: roto wheel, Neil Young: harmony vocals, harmonica, Kufaru Mouton: extro percussion, Lucinda Williams: acoustic guitar, Richard Bennett: tremolo guitar, Anna McGarrigle: harmony vocals, Kate McGarrigle: harmony.