Critic's pick: Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, 'Old Yellow Moon,' and Simone Dinnerstein and Tift Merritt, 'Night'

Contributing Music WriterMarch 25, 2013 

The duet format has long been a staple of every genre of contemporary music. But nowhere has its influence established itself more generously than in country circles. Two new recordings offer wildly different reflections of the country duet formula. One is based on a working partnership than dates back nearly 40 years. The other is new and almost happenstance in comparison.

Old Yellow Moon reteams Emmylou Harris with one of the first and most acclaimed graduates of her '70s-era Hot Band, Rodney Crowell. But the relationship extends deeper than time served. Harris has regularly recorded Crowell's songs, works that illuminate grim — and often self-inflicted — emotional wounds. But there have been merry works, too. In fact, one of Old Yellow Moon's many highlights is Bluebird Wine, a Crowell tune that Harris cut as the first song on her first major-label album, 1974's Pieces of the Sky. This new version gives Crowell most of the vocal chores and a light Americana feel to work off of that is reflective of the entire album.

Old Yellow Moon avoids the perhaps obvious concept of having Harris cut an entire album of Crowell's songs. Instead, the two are placed on equal footing, with outside material and country classics mingling with Crowell's works.

It comes as no surprise that Harris steals the show. Few artists, country or otherwise, have discovered such a sage (if not slightly world-weary) tone to the interpretive power of their singing as Harris. That attribute radiates from Back When We Were Beautiful, a tune with the plaintive gravity of a McGarrigle Sisters classic even though it was written by Matraca Berg.

"I hate it when they say I'm aging gracefully," Harris sings as the song turns wistful. That might just go down as one of the most ironic lines this Americana matriarch has ever let slip from her lips.

Night is an altogether different beast. It teams Tift Merritt — an artist groomed for country stardom whose intensely personal music was instead embraced by Americana audiences — with classical pianist Simone Dinnerstein. The two met when Merritt was recruited by Gramophone magazine to interview Dinnerstein for a profile. The alliance, unlikely as it seems, bloomed from there.

The resulting album is slight, sparse and graceful without sounding stoic. No other artists are used. Much of Night, in fact, has Dinnerstein's regal playing serving as the primary foil for Merritt's delicate vocals, from a gorgeously nocturnal take on Billie Holliday's Don't Explain to a ghostly variation of I Will Give My Love an Apple.

Toss in the compositions and spirits of Henri Purcell, Brad Mehldau, J.S. Bach, Patty Griffin and Leonard Cohen, and you have a duets session that is far more worldly than country.

Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.

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