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Music Reviews

Screaming Females - Castle Talk
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Castle Talk
Don Giovanni
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross - The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
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The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
The Null Corporation
Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest
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No Age - Everything in Between
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Everything in Between
Sub Pop
Robyn - Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
The Walkmen - Lisbon
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Fat Possum
Emmylou Harris
Heartaches & Highways: The Very Best Of Emmylou Harris
Rhino Records

Rating: 9/10 ?

August 10, 2005
Condensing the discography of one of America's greatest musical icons into one volume is nearly impossible, but Rhino has done so perfectly with Heartaches & Highways, a 20 song platter that covers every decade of Harris's career and offers everything from hits to album tracks to an unreleased song.

Often considered an integral figure in bridging the gulfs between rock, country and pop, Harris crossed genre boundaries without obvious formal cues. Her role as interpreter rather than songwriter - only three songs on this compilation were written by her - is one that has generally drawn scorn from rock audiences since Rubber Soul popularized the album format and predicted an end to the days when British invasion acts would be able to garner quick fame through covers of blues and rock standards.

Since the mid-60s, rock has placed a premium on originality - even in the face of evidence that doing so is contradictory and self-defeating. Though playing her own instrument made many a good first impression, Harris has ultimately been able to woo generations of rockist audiences by singing and playing the definitive versions of songs. She didn't write "Love Hurts," "If I Could Only Win Your Love" or "To Know Him Is to Love Him," but the songs are undeniably hers, and her ability to consistently tap into the very essence of every song she performs is the primary reason she's such an enduring figure.

The major problem with interpreting others' songs is that it leaves an artist particularly susceptible to market forces and public whims. Rather than creating songs with no life beyond the original artist's vision - which is what the songwriter often does - the interpreter plays only a small part in the life of a song. The song is bigger than the singer, which lends an air of temporality and even disposability to the singer's work and further distances an artist like Harris from the rockist model.

Once again, though, Harris appeals to opposing sensibilities, showing a ready willingness to change with the times and let aspects of her artistic persona die when necessary. She always makes wise choices about which songs to perform and preserves her subtle touch and integrity by opting for a less commercially viable route in her later career. With the exception of "(Lost His Love) On Our Last Date" on which an unfortunate sax solo betrays its 1982 release date, all of the songs on this compilation have an air of timelessness about them.

Though her classic 70s material is the strongest and most seminal, Harris's more recent work stands alone surprisingly well. The inclusion of five songs from the last decade doesn't call the phrase The Very Best of into question. Harris's work with Daniel Lanois on 1995's Wrecking Ball seems to have set the tenor of the latest chapter in her career: Lanois added wispy layers of guitar and a triumphant percussive heartbeat to Harris's musical vocabulary, giving her the appearance of a twangier U2 - her recent attention towards spiritual lyrics only places her in closer proximity to The Joshua Tree. On 1998's "Green Pastures," this formula lands Harris and her accompanists a bit too close to youth worship band territory, but otherwise, she handles the style gracefully - much more so than Bono often did.

Being less familiar with Harris's oeuvre than I'd like to be, and having no knowledge of how well other compilations document her career, I hesitate to call Heartaches & Highways definitive or essential. It is undoubtedly, however, worth investigation for neophytes and longtime fans in need of a far-reaching one stop; it also completely answers any questions as to why we still talk about and listen to Harris's music with clarity and love.

Reviewed by Phillip Buchan
A one-time music director at WUOG in Athens, Phillip is into college radio, literature, writing, buying records, going to shows, talking to friends, learning -- pretty much the same stuff that all of us priveledged, (pseudo?)intellectual Americans are into.

See other reviews by Phillip Buchan



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