Picks and Pans Review: Stumble into Grace

updated 10/13/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/13/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Emmylou Harris
COUNTRY/FOLK
CRITIC'S CHOICE

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Harris, 56, is of an age and stature at which she should be allowed to do pretty much whatever she wants. Which is exactly what she does on this follow-up to 2000's Red Dirt Girl. Her 20th studio album is a polyglot collection that ranges from romantic songs to Celtic-flavored folk numbers to such vaguely religious tunes as "Time in Babylon." It is a thoroughly unclassifiable album—and a thoroughly beautiful one. Harris's voice remains remarkably true and expressive, and her lower register, in which she sings most of the disc's 11 songs, suggests a maturity and sophistication while never seeming aloof. Whether she's reaching back on traditional tunes like "O Evangeline" and "Plaisir d'Amour" or trying new material like "Here I Am" and "Little Bird," she sounds sure; she never sings anything you don't believe. As a testament to Harris's standing as a country-folk doyenne, several female artists lend a hand. Linda Ronstadt, a longtime Harris collaborator, sings on "Strong Hand," a stately tune dedicated to the late June Carter Cash; Jane Siberry provides guest vocals on the hymnlike "Lost unto this World"; and former Luscious Jackson frontwoman Jill Cuniff cowrote "Time in Babylon." But it is Harris herself who steals the show, wielding that ethereally beautiful voice much as Gabriel was said to wield his trumpet. She will make you feel as if you have truly stumbled into grace.

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