Spin Control


April 23, 2006



Mark Knopfler & Emmylou Harris, "All the Road Running" (Warner Bros.) ***

Though he's never been particularly showy about it, Dire Straits leader Mark Knopfler remains one of the coolest guitar heroes this side of Richard Thompson -- consistently impressive but never flamboyant; fiery but melodic; inventive but with deep roots in folk and the blues. For her part, Emmylou Harris is one of the most empathetic duet partners any male singer could ask for, and she's recorded with some of the best: Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and, of course, Gram Parsons, whom she always credits with "teaching me how to sing, and giving me a reason to."

Knopfler, 56, and Harris, 60, first met in 1987 on a Chet Atkins TV special, and they went on to spend a staggering seven years collaborating on this set of a dozen duets. But it was worth the wait: Harris' angelic tones perfectly complement Knopfler's throaty growl, an instrument as underrated as his guitar. And as with all great partnerships, the sum is greater than the parts, especially on atmospheric ballads such as the low-key but uplifting "Rollin' On," the gently lilting "This Is Us" and the closing "If This Is Goodbye," one of several tunes inspired by 9/11.

Both artists contribute to the songwriting, and the album falls flat when the collaborators veer away from the mid-tempo grooves where they're most comfortable to incorporate some Cajun seasoning ("Red Staggerwing") or attempt a straight country tune in the mode of George Jones and Tammy Wynette ("Love and Happiness"). If Knopfler and Harris had taken just a little more time to replace these failed experiments with some stronger originals, or if they'd replaced those duff tunes with some well-chosen covers (I'd have loved to hear them tackle a Johnny Cash and June Carter number), they could have had a classic, but this disc is worth your time nonetheless.


Secret Machines, "Ten Silver Drops" (Reprise) ***1/2

Formed in Dallas in 2000, with time spent in Oklahoma and Chicago (where they recorded an early EP), brothers Ben and Brandon Curtis, who play guitar and keyboards/bass, and monstrously hard-hitting drummer Josh Garza finally settled in the thriving Brooklyn rock scene. But the trio's first album, "Now Here Is Nowhere" (2004), had little in common with the frenetic New Wave of New Wave music that's been emanating from that locale in recent years, reaching instead for a hybrid of classic psychedelic-rock sounds steeped in pre-"Dark Side of the Moon" Pink Floyd, '70s space rock such as Hawkwind and the English shoegazer movement of the early '90s.

As impressive as that debut was, the self-produced follow-up "Ten Silver Drops" is a big leap forward, with Secret Machines concentrating as much on the song craft as on the sonic swirl. With the exception of the obviously New York-inspired "I Hate Pretending," a propulsive story-song about a drug deal gone bad, the words don't command much attention; the title of the opening "Alone, Jealous and Stoned" is typical of the mindset that seems to prevail when it comes to lyric-writing.

But this time out, the band has crafted a surplus of melodies as powerful as Garza's rhythms, the singing has grown much stronger and more self-assured, and it all combines to create a fantastically trippy and otherworldly disc that nonetheless keeps you humming along and banging your head in time.