Almost any other year, Over the Rhine‘s Ohio would have been my #1 album– by a longshot.
Everything about the album bears witness to its standing as a full-fledged masterpiece: Its epic, 2-disc and 90-minute length indicates its grand scope and vision, while its astonishing consistency testifies to the duo‘s mastery of the form. And the form, in this case, is a deeply-rooted American songcraft that doesn’t distinguish between folk, country, gospel, rock, and blues. It’s a spectacular showcase for Karin Bergquist’s powerhouse vocals– truly, this album represents her full flourishing as a singer– but more than that, it’s an incredible feat of songwriting, a spiritual travelogue filled with devastating heartache and prayerful reflection, its concerns political and personal both at once. Few albums released this decade were as ambitious in their artistry, and fewer still were as effective.
Unfortunately– for Over the Rhine, anyway– they happened to release their opus right around the same time Joe Henry released his. Tiny Voices was, in many ways, Henry‘s big step forward: Scar signaled that he was moving his art into an entirely new realm, but it did nothing to prepare listeners for the follow-up, an edgy and adventurous jazz-rock combo that ushered Henry into the rarefied company of songwriters like Tom Waits and Nick Cave. Sonically, it’s as bold as anything released this decade, its inspired improvisations seeming to recreate themselves every time the album is played. The songs themselves are elusive, embodying mystery and exuding grace. Henry would go on to make albums that were probably just as good, maybe even better in some respects, but Tiny Voices remains my favorite, and my top album of 2003 without question.
Nothing else released in that year comes close to matching the profundity or vision of those two twin peaks– a pair of honest-to-goodness modern-day classics– but that doesn’t mean there weren’t plenty of other exceptional and noteworthy albums that came out in 2003. The White Stripes released Elephant that year, their darkest and possibly their weirdest album. It might also be their most complex, and, depending on which day you ask me, it’s either my favorite of their records or a close second to the more primitive and ragged White Blood Cells.
Radiohead, of course, is, for many, the defining band of the 00s, and in 2003 they released Hail to the Thief, a record that’s noteworthy less for the material on it than for its signaling their return to more rock-oriented recording after the trips into the out-there with Kid A and Amnesiac. I think it’s the weakest album they made in the 00s, but, this being Radiohead, that hardly means it’s a dud: Yes, it may be a little bloated, but, as the angrier and more aggressive sequel to OK Computer, it’s as smartly political as any album released this decade, and it boasts numerous Radiohead classics.
Then, of course, there’s Outkast. If any group embodied the spirit of the decade, or set the tone for its music, as effectively as Radiohead, it was this duo. That said, the split double album Speakerboxx/The Love Below— featuring one solo disc by Big Boi and one by Andre– threw listeners for a loop when it arrived in 2003, and continues to do so even today. Despite its massive sales and Grammy-winning success, the album hasn’t necessarily aged well in the minds of many critics, which is no great surprise: After the disappointment of the Idlewild album, many began to understand it as the beginning of the end for hip-hop’s most visionary groups. That may be so, but the simple facts of the music itself remain unchanged: Speakerboxx is a blindingly ambitious and lively hip-hop album that would have been close to a five-star classic on its own. Couple it with the unerringly eccentric, often flat-out bizarre Love Below— inconsistent, but mostly brilliant– and you’ve got more than two hours of wildly entertaining, funny, insightful, and endlessly creative music. Few albums can make such a massive claim.
Two of the most singular talents in country music released records in 2003, and, not surprisingly, they stand as two of the best country albums of the decade. Lucinda Williams‘ World Without Tears is a nasty, hard-rocking album that surveys heartache and romantic peril; the music is alive with blood and tears and plenty of sex, and, for my money, it’s the sharpest thing Williams ever cut. Meanwhile, in a very different sphere of country music, Emmylou Harris made an almost impossibly elegant, meditative reflection on love, grace, God, and redemption, called Stumble Into Grace.
Other landmarks from the year 2003: The Weakerthans made a punkish pop/rock album called Reconsturction Site that was catchy, funny, and profound. The Shins released their terrific, classicist indie pop album, Chutes Too Narrow. Drive-by Truckers made one of their strongest sets– possibly my favorite of their albums– in the earthy, literate Decoration Day. The Innocence Mission created one of their strongest works, a beautiful reflection on companionship and sacrificial love called Befriended. Daniel Lanois‘ Shine is an album that I was quite taken with back in 2003, though it hasn’t held up so well– the vocal cuts are all wonderful, but the atmospheric instrumentals quickly become tedious. And, bizarrely enough, the soundtrack to the so-so TV series Crossing Jordan proved to have some of the finest music released all year. Artists like Joe Henry, Sam Phillips, Lucinda Williams, Richard Thompson, and the Holmes Brothers cover songs by the likes of Tom Waits, Jimi Hendrix, Lou Reed, and the Beatles. How could that possibly not be great?
That was 2003 for me. What were your favorites?
How fitting that Buddy and Julie Miller open their long-awaited Written in Chalk with “Ellis County,” an Appalachian-tinged ballad that finds the couple in straightforwardly nostalgic mode, pining for days gone by when “if we ate, then we had to grow it” and “all we could afford was laughter.” Never mind the resonances that such a song might have during these perilous days of economic uncertainty; the song might as well be the couple’s musical mission statement. It’s not that they’ve revivalists, or even that they often peddle nostalgia as blatantly as they do here; it’s just that the two have always preferred the simplicity of soulful American music idioms over anything that smacks of being hip or contemporary.
Providing the opposite bookend to this fine album is “The Selfishness of Man,” Buddy’s tearful duet with Emmylou Harris, a mournful tune that finds the two country vets longing to replace humankind’s inner darkness with childlike faith and wonder. It’s a wish they know will never come true– at least not on this side of Paradise– but it’s something far purer and more meaningful than mere idealism. It’s a prayer, humble and hopeful and real.
The album’s sequencing is a work of subtle genius; with those two songs at either end of the spectrum, the tracks that fall between them– the Millers’ usual songs of love gone wrong, of faith and heartache– become an eloquent dialogue, an album about complicated relationships, made by a husband and a wife who believe in their secret hearts that love is really very simple. Naturally, there’s a great deal of sorrow on this album, to the extent that it’s almost a breakup album– a feeling enhanced by the fact that, oddly, Buddy and Julie sing together on only a few cuts, spending half of the album alternating between solo cuts and duets with other artists, hopefully not a case of art imitating life. But no, it’s not a breakup album, at least not totally; it’s a profoundly human and profoundly spiritual inquiry into sadness, joy, faith, and carnal love made stronger by trying times and hard work.
Country music, at its core, is really just soul music, a connection made explicit in the singalong “One Part, Two Part,” and implicit everywhere else; whether singing about human relationships or their own Christian faith, Buddy and Julie have never been much for complicated metaphor, instead trading in traditional songcraft that blurs the line between sentimentality and down-to-earth sincerity. Occasionally this makes the Millers sound a little maudlin, especially on Julie’s weepy ballads, of which there is maybe one too many here, but, when they’re at their best, their songs resound with beauty and real joy– and, on this record, they’re almost always at their best. There’s a spunky little romp called “Gasoline and Matches,” an ode to intimacy that stands as the most fun and flirty track they’ve ever cut together, and a bluesy roots-rocker called “Memphis Jane” that fuses Julie’s innocence and sweet storytelling with Buddy’s grit and guitar mastery.
These songs, where the couple sings together, will likely be the ones most cherished by fans, but splitting up for some of these songs allows the two to take their music into previously unexplored avenues. Buddy gets to duet with Robert Plant on a gleeful blues rollick, “What You Gonna Do Leroy.” Julie gets to do a jazz ballad, singing alongside muted trumpet and twinkling piano on “Long Time.” Patty Griffin and Regina McCrary show up on two songs apiece, providing soulful harmonies.
In terms of musical and emotional terrain, this is the Millers’ most varied and complete set yet, even more so then their roots-rock duet album from 2001, and their combination of muscle and heart is as winning as ever, but what matters most, of course, are the songs, and it’s here that the Millers prove why they’re national treasures. Too country for country radio, Buddy and Julie have always written from a place of honesty and poetry that make them peerless. Sorrow and gladness, faith and desire meet again and again on this record, and the sparks of beauty it creates makes Written in Chalk a timeless piece, an album to be lived with and treasured.
Emmylou Harris offers an explanation of her new album’s title in the thank-you section of the liner notes, expressing her gratitude to the musicians who play on the record for “helping me to be all I ever intended-a singer of songs, a writer of songs, and a strummer of a few chords…” It’s a fitting description of her work not only on this album, but over the course of her whole storied career. Surely it’s no exaggeration at this point to call her one of the greatest, most consistent artists of the past fifty years, but she hasn’t gotten there by doing anything particularly radical; she’s made her name chiefly as an interpreter of songs, a vocalist of unsurpassed grace, and, occasionally, a writer of heartfelt, country-rock poetry. Very few of her albums qualify as groundbreaking, but that doesn’t mean they don’t qualify as great; Luxury Liner might not have turned the roots-rock genre on its side, but it did set the new standard for it.
No one will herald All I Intended to Be for being groundbreaking, but they might praise it as one of the most stately and elegant albums in her entire catalog-and they’d be right, which is really saying something, as Emmylou has made her name on her effortlessness and charm. And effortless it certainly is-these thirteen tracks inhabit that same intersection of country and folk where Emmylou has been seen more than once over the past few decades, acoustic guitar and songbook in hand. It’s a low-key, acoustic affair, gentle and meditative, uniformly slow in tempo, with the emphasis on the singer and the songs.
In other words: She’s either playing to her strengths or resting on her laurels, depending on who you talk to. Really, it probably falls somewhere in between. Emmylou is in that enviable place where she can move forward by looking back; she’s accomplished so much already that for her to consolidate her strengths and reflect on her past, it seems to signal a whole host of new directions for the future. If nothing else, it reminds us of why she’s so essential, and why, no matter how many times we’ve heard this kind of thing before, she does it better than anybody.
The reflective spirit of the title doesn’t just extend to the mellow mood, either; it extends also to her choice to work with producer Brian Ahern, who helmed many of her standard-setting albums in the 70s and 80s, and, of course, in the songs themselves. A collection of some of Emmylou’s personal favorites, as well as some new compositions, the record boasts classics by Billy Joe Shaver and Jude Johnstone, newer numbers by the likes of Tracy Chapman, a Patty Griffin B-side, and a few of her own cuts. She even brings in some of her favorite harmony partners-Buddy Miller and Dolly Parton-and the result is an album of handsome, exceedingly graceful and organic folk songs, tinted with a dash of country and sung with the voice of an angel.
Of course, one could make the argument that she’s done this kind of thing so much before-and inspired so many imitators-that the album has a hard time really sinking its teeth in and making a strong impression, which isn’t entirely wrong. Certainly, Ahern’s production is well-mannered to the point that it comes across as a bit of a roots-rock cliché, and the lethargic tempo means that these songs tend to blend together, and, at thirteen songs long, it takes a lot of patience to get through it all.
It’s a shame Ahern didn’t coax Emmylou into bringing to this album some of the energy of Wrecking Ball, or some of the humor and variety that spiced up their earlier collaborations together. As it is, the record feels a lot more monochromatic-and a lot longer-than it really should. Still, there’s no denying that it’s an album of pristine beauty, that these songs are full of heart and Emmylou’s performance marked by elegance and ease. And that’s more than enough to make it a pleasant listen-if not an entirely gripping or thrilling one-from an artist whose good intentions have once again been matched by her creative gift.