Three Is The Magic Number

The first Trio album won a Grammy in 1987.

The first Trio album to showcase the harmonizing talents of Dolly

Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris fostered four hit singles in

1987-'88, a time when neotraditionalism was at its apex on country

charts and in critics' hearts. Somewhat matter-of-factly, it seems,

Trio II has been unleashed upon the current landscape of dixie

chicks in wide-open spaces and Mutt Lange's better half prancing around

in dominatrix garb on the Grammys. Please do not read any value judgment

or anti-progressive stance into this comparison; it's nothing more than

a realization that Trio II comes off as hopelessly out-of-step

with today's country-music climate (mostly sunny, but

when the thunder rolls, it rolls mightily).

Eroding Trio II's impact potential even further is the fact that

it features a less stellar collection of songwriters than its

predecessor. The names here are Neil Young, favorite standby the Carter

Family and Randy Newman, although it's important to note that Newman's

lovely "Feels Like Home" is an atypical, irony-free show tune from his

outrageous Faust album that is sung better by Bonnie Raitt (guess

Linda wanted to play Martha all along). After that, you get Kieran Kane

and Jamie O'Hara (of the O'Kanes, remember them?), producer John

Starling, "one of today's most respected bluegrass performers" Del

McCoury (who?) and some other folks whose names I'll forget the

millisecond I stop typing them.

Yet however haphazard Trio II may be, I insist that it still

works in the end as an album with a vague theme and better pacing than

Trio's ecumenical refresher course. What that theme might be can

be glimpsed from the cover. Pics of the principals in their adolescence

are sprinkled on top of a muddy, beige background and pressed flowers

mimicking an old photo album that is "yellowing with antiquity," as my

man Tennessee Williams would have it. It's an infinitely less

celebratory take on traditionalism, making the Williams analogy

a fitting one. Like his plays, Trio II is populated with

desperate, deluded human animals haunted or trapped by their pasts --

iguanas at the end of their ropes, sweet birds of youth fluttering away,

etc.

Even a 1935 copyright like The Carter Family's "Lover's Return" fits in

this schematic. It's a dizzingly complex tale of a jilted woman who

tries to remain bittersweet rather than bitter when she runs into her

jilter decades later, and Ronstadt sings it with weary control. Taken

together with the darn-near nihilistic "The Blue Train" and "High

Sierra" or the back-handed "You'll Never Be The Sun," it kicks off the

best bummer of an album since Tricky's Angels With Dirty Faces.

Country gals are as plagued with pre-millennium tension as

German-Jamaicans with twisted faces, Trio II says. We wouldn't

blink if we heard Tricky utter lines like "the sad truth is nothing but

a cold hard fact" or "my state of mind is desperate and this hole I'm

sinkin' in gets deeper while I'm diggin' to get out," but here those

lines reflect a self-conscious effort to wrestle these demons. Sure, it

offers little for country radio to program. But it's a better snapshot

of 1999 than either Cassius' or Prince's, providing anyone who finds

narcissistic crybabyism at the center of "Prozac Nation" with

overwhelming ammunition in "High Sierra": "I've been higher than the

High Sierra/ Lower than Death Valley must be/ I've been right, mostly

wrong/ Wrong about you, right about me."