...it takes delicious audacity to set your sights on Led Zeppelin's 'Stairway To...
Sue Keogh 2002
The clue is in the title, and Halos And Horns is an album of contrasts and contradictions. Dolly is offering more of a mixed bag than her two most recent albums, 2001's Little Sparrow and 1999's Grammy-award winning The Grass Is Blue, which had a consistent bluegrass sound throughout. Although the overall sound here is "mountain", with its banjos, fiddles and nostalgic yearning for simpler times, there are a few surprises to throw you off track. Only Dolly could get away with an acoustic reworking of "If", originally done by 1970s soft rock group Bread. But it takes delicious audacity to set your sights on Led Zeppelin's "Stairway To Heaven" (I never thought there could be a connection between Dolly and Rolf Harris). If on Little Sparrow she said she brought Cole Porter's "drag-ass" song "I Get A Kick Out Of You" "up to bluegrass", here she takes this kick-ass classic and sweetens it up with Dobro, banjo and a celestial choir. And she gets away with it again.
This is what will get Halos And Horns press coverage from the places the album would not normally reach, and as such is a very canny move on Ms Parton's part. But for her average fan there is plenty to enjoy too. The whole project came from one of Dolly's "writing binges" and what you will hear are the demos of the songs. She was so happy with them that she didn't tamper with the recordings. With her usual producer Steve Buckingham at the helm she eschewed the all-star line up of Stuart Duncan, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas et al that she used on the last two albums. Instead she is using backing vocals from The Kingdom Heirs, the resident quartet at her theme park Dollywood, and musicians from East Tennessee. She's called the band the Blue-niques, and they are to accompany her on her July and August concert tour, her first for ten years. They are fine backing for Dolly's voice, which is in beautiful shape, pouring an impossible amount of joy and sadness into every single note in the way that only she can.
The opening track, a simple country waltz exploring the difficulty in sticking to a righteous path, deliberately sets the tone for the rest of the album. "Halos and horns/ Sinners and saints/ Hearts that are torn/ Between what's wrong and ain't/ Just because it feels right/ Does not make it so/ So we struggle to lie/ In horns and halos". "Hello God" and "Raven Dove" continue the theme and both songs are very much a response to September 11th. The former shows Dolly turning philosopher with her whispered conversation with God "I have questioned Your existence/ and my resistance leaves me cold", as the song builds to a crescendo with drums, strings and a full-on choir, a move away from the more rootsy and acoustic sound of the rest of the album. Then "Raven Dove", using images of contradiction taken from the Bible, mixes mandolin and piano and is a plea of peace for the future.
If it all sounds a bit serious then there's plenty to lighten the load. "Sugar Hill" is a sweet little bit of nostalgia about being a young girl in times when life was "sweeter than candy and cake and pie", and then there's "I'm Gone", which zips along with exactly the same glee you would expect from a woman throwing her wedding ring from a train, knowing that she's finally free from her "selfish, vain and greedy" man. One that stands out as a bit odd though is "These Old Bones", about a psychic old woman who lives in the mountains and whose daughter was taken from her. Dolly adopts the voice of a Deep South old crone, which is very much at odds with the ageless Southern belle image she has spent so much time cultivating. But, as I mentioned earlier, the key to this album is contradiction...
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