Listening to Emmylou Harris' new album, "Cimarron" (Warner Bros. BSK 3603), is a bit like scanning a few contemporary country radio stations in the dead of night. There are no surprises, nothing to pique interest, just the usual playlist of country weepers whose original poignance, if any, has been muted by either familiarity ("Tennessee Waltz" and "Spanish Is the Loving Tongue") or tepid arrangements ("Rose of Cimarron" and "Son of a Rotten Gambler").
The bittersweet melodies cast a pleasant spell every now and then, and Harris' voice retains much of its haunting beauty, especially on those harmonies. Yet the songs pass, one by one, quietly and forgettably into the night.
"Cimarron" may very well be Harris' most complacent album. The title track and "Gambler" are little more than uninspired cover versions of rather uninspired originals. Poco's "Rose of Cimarron" has a lilting country rock pulse that is well suited to Harris' delivery but offers nothing else. The rusty narrative of "Gambler," as well as that of Paul Kennerley's "Born to Run," is sung with more precision than personality, to say nothing of passion. The same is true of Bruce Springsteen's sermonette "The Price You Pay"; each of these performances is pretty, polite and impersonal.
Still, Harris isn't solely to blame for the mediocrity of "Cimarron"; one can't help but think that she's taking a breather on this album, cutting a few of her favorite songs without bothering to make anything special of her interpretations. The arrangements, to be honest, don't allow her much latitude. Members of her Hot Band appear irregularly throughout the album, but even their contributions bring only momentary life to the otherwise routine backing.
There are a couple of exceptions, notably "Another Lonesome Morning," which reunites the Hot Band, and the lovely "Tennessee Rose," brightened considerably by Ricky Skaggs' fiddle and the affecting harmonies of the White sisters. The only other standout is a warm duet featuring Don Williams on Townes Van Zandt's "If I Needed You."
Of all the songs, though, "Spanish Is the Loving Tongue" is the most telling selection. Bob Dylan, with whom Harris has recorded, placed the same song on one of his albums in the early '70s, a record that found Dylan in a holding pattern, rehashing songs he had always wanted to record but never got a chance to. Harris seems to be indulging in the same leisure activity with "Cimarron."
That's a luxury that lesser-known pop-folk musicians such as Kate Wolf or Claudia Schmidt can't afford. Wolf's latest album, "Close to You" (Kaleidoscope F-15), is a genuinely warm and personal listening experience. She's blessed not only with a lovely voice, as strong as it is clear, but with an ability to write graceful and quite often poignant ballads. She also has a knack for recruiting gifted musicians of empathetic temperament for her albums -- in this case Tony Rice, Norton Buffalo and her frequent companions Bill Griffin and Nina Gerber, among others -- and gently bringing them together through delicately crafted arrangements.
In a field saturated with sentimentality and triteness, Wolf is something of an anomaly. Her songs tend to dwell on familiar themes, but she has a keen eye for detail, writes with disarming simplicity and concision and frequently hooks the listener at the outset. In "Eyes of a Painter," for example, she begins:
Greyhaired and flint-eyed, his sunburned face lined
Grandpa was a man of few words.
But he had a way of not wanting to say
Any more than he thought would be heard.
By the time she's through, there's little you don't know about the painter, his life, or the way he lived it.
The same sensitivity marks her songs in the first person. Happily, Wolf doesn't need to depend on threadbare cliche's to hold her confessional songs together. She's clever enough to coin her own phrases, and when she resorts to a familiar line she frequently puts a little spin on it. In "Here in California" she playfully expands on a quote from the Book of Ecclesiastes:
A time to love and come together;
A time when love longs for a name,
A time for questions we can't answer
Though we ask them just the same.
Like Wolf, Claudia Schmidt possesses a beautiful voice and writes distinctive songs, though she clearly favors more exotic arrangements. Her latest album, "Midwestern Heart" (Flying Fish FF241), would be noteworthy just for its colorful instrumentation: A dulcimer, cello, harmonica, pedal steel guitar, saxophone, pennywhistle and pianolin all conspire with more conventional string instruments to make delightfully eclectic music.
At times Schmidt's songs are powerfully evocative. "Broken Glass," for instance, packs more of a wallop than a six-pack of honky-tonk tunes. It begins almost as an afterthought:
I was walking through the broken glass last night
And thought of you
And wondered where your reckless ways had brought you to
My memories of you whirled me back
To boiling blood and wrath
I wondered if you stumbled on a lighter path.
And it ends, five vividly drawn verses later, with a prayer:
Wherever you may be tonight, I hope you're pleased and calm
That the air around you soothes you like a holy balm
That your lonely anger hasn't turned your insides inside out
That you found a place that some of us still dream about.
Schmidt's songs aren't always as successful as this one. Nor is her music, which occasionally assumes an almost Far Eastern tranquility, going to be to everyone's liking. Still, even her lesser songs betray more than just her talent. Considerable time, imagination and commitment went into making both Schmidt's and Wolf's albums distinctive and enjoyable, qualities that are altogether lacking on Harris' "Cimarron."