Albert Lee – Heartbreak Hill
For his third vocal album (and first in 21 years), Lee chooses a noble theme: the work of his friend and onetime bandleader, Emmylou Harris. All ten songs are drawn from the Harris repertoire (some of them familiar hits, others more obscure).
Though she penned the liner notes, Harris remains an otherwise phantom presence here, not singing a note. That’s OK, because there’s a party’s worth of guests as it is. Lee trades licks with Vince Gill and Brad Paisley on Gram Parsons’ “Luxury Liner”; Patty Loveless harmonizes on the title track; Rodney Crowell, Maura O’ Connell and Buddy Miller all show up to harmonize; and there are instrumental turns from Mickey Raphael, Buddy Emmons and Earl Scruggs.
It’s pleasant enough listening. As a guitarist, Albert Lee has no equal. As a vocalist, he blows Joe Satriani away. His singing on a gentle ballad such as Crowell’s “Til I Gain Control Again” is like a Jackie Chan love scene: No law against it, he has every right I suppose, but you’re still just sitting through it waiting for the next flip-out ninja business to get going.
The most thrilling musical moment on the album is not anything Lee does on guitar, amazingly enough, but the electric piano playing of J.T. Thomas on Paul Kennerly’s “Born To Run”. There’s a swingy rudeness to it, a willingness to step on the other players a bit, that takes the track a little higher than any of the others go.
There’s more peerless guitar playing on this record than you can shake a stick at, but there’s something about it — a practiced, tasteful peerlessness — that causes you to say “yeah, that’s amazing” lick after lick, and then it’s on to the next track. Part of it is the mix: The fills are no louder than the leads, and playing this good should be in your face more than it is here. But that seems to be part of the modus operandi — a presentation of songs and singing from a guy who happens to be the best country guitarist alive, yet the latter’s not allowed to overshadow the former.