March 23, 1987 12:00 PM

Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt

Earth, wind and fire are no more elemental than these marvelous singers. And as good as they sound individually—Parton is especially vibrant—they are spectacular together, adroitly complementing each other in a textbook display of how lovely harmony can sound. They are so splendid, in fact, that they could probably sing the obituaries and make them sound musical. At times, that seems to be what they’re doing on this album. The tone is all but somber and none of the 11 tunes except The Pain of Loving You ever gets any peppier than a brisk two-step. That wouldn’t be bothersome if so many of the songs the three women chose were not banal. The traditional Rosewood Casket, Kate McGarrigle’s I’ve Had Enough and Johnny Russell and Voni Morrison’s Making Plans are lifeless in spite of the trio’s rich harmonies. So too is its version of the Teddy Bears’ hit To Know Him Is to Love Him, sung as a dramatic ballad. This album has been an on-again, off-again project that has taken years to complete. Earlier, the three women recorded Mr. Sandman. Something that playful would have provided a happy change of pace on this LP. Complaining seems churlish when the mere sound of these three voices is such a sensual pleasure, but it is heartbreaking that so few songs are as touching as Linda Thompson and Betsy Cook’s Telling Me Lies: “You don’t know what a chance is/ Until you have to seize one/ You don’t know what a man is/ Until you have to please one.” The all-star backup band, falling in with the trio’s minimalist mood, offers such support as Albert Lee’s beautifully restrained solos. Producer George Massenberg captured the voices with startling clarity. This should have been a masterpiece, but instead of being a rare musical thrill, it’s just nice. (Warner Bros.)

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