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Vocal restraint, production values minimize overall effort


Former Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler and country/folk music legend Emmylou Harris have been working (when their busy schedules allowed) on an album for the past seven years, and the end result, All the Roadrunning (Nonesuch), finally saw the light of day last month.

At first glance, this may seem an odd pairing — and it is.

The album is as disparate a musical coupling as can be imagined, and the result is a mixed success. When Knopfler and Dire Straits were at their peak (1988-91), they were a hard-rock, guitar-jam band driven to extended songs and solos. Some 15 years later. Knopfler’s sound has progressed into a stately country/bluegrass mode with occasional forays into hard rock.
Harris, meanwhile, has been one of the queens of country and folk for more than 30 years, willing to take chances and stretch her style (evident on 1995’s Wrecking Ball).

The virtues of All the Roadrunning are the production values (the fiddle and mandolin playing by Glen Duncan add immensely to the texture of the recording, as does Dan Dugmore‘s acoustic guitar and pedal steel), Knopfler’s rock-steady guitar work, Harris’ inspired phrasing and the songwriting. Ten of the 12 songs were written by Knopfler, and this is his valentine to Harris. The highlights are “Beachcombing,” “This Is Us,” “I Dug Up a Diamond” and the title tune.

The drawbacks to this album stem from Knopfler’s gruff, smoky vocal style — which almost weighs down Harris’ clean, static-free delivery — and his too delicate handling of the vocal arrangements. It’s as if Knopfler had captured a wild stallion and, instead of letting it run wild, he ensconced it in a golden stable and covered it with velvet blankets.

One can only imagine the result if Harris sang alone on this disc (with perhaps the occasional guest) and with less control — in this sense, some of the production values are also a detriment. Harris’ lyrical contributions (“Belle Starr” and “Love and Happiness”) surpass in quality and intensity Knopfler’s song quantity and obvious attempts at understatement.

With repeated listening, this album may eclipse any preconceived notions of greatness; instead, it ends up as a fine effort from two talented performers that reached hard for the stars and missed.

— By Donald Gavron