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Originally published Monday, April 25, 2011 at 7:00 PM

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Emmylou Harris' 'Hard Bargain' is an easy winner

CD reviews: Emmylou Harris wrote 11 of the 13 songs on her new album "Hard Bargain," including two moving tributes to friends who have died, Gram Parsons and Kate McGarrigle. Other noteworthy albums this week include Augustana's self-titled third effort, Tab Benoit's "Medicine," Steve Earle's "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive" and jazz tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman's "James Farm."

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Emmylou Harris, 'Hard Bargain' (Nonesuch)

Emmylou Harris, of the winsome voice and bittersweet twang, has never been at a loss to find great songs written by others, but this time she's composed a few herself that will probably make other singers' A-lists. Harris wrote 11 of the 13 tracks on "Hard Bargain," a disc that confronts head-on disappointment, death and loss with the oddly comforting, backward glance of middle age.

"Darlin' Kate," a memorial for the late, great Kate McGarrigle, who died last year of cancer, is a heartbreaker, particularly when Harris speak-sings the last word in the last line: "But if there was one name I could consecrate/it would be yours... it would be... Kate."

The opener, "The Road," is a touching tribute to Harris' late partner, Gram Parsons, in which she allows that one can't be "haunted by the past" since "nothing ever lasts," even as she savors his memory. Harris' voice cracks in its inimitable way on the rolling "Home Sweet Home," and her nicely sculpted tribute to Civil Rights martyr Emmett Till has the economy of a classic ballad. A pair of songs, "Lonely Girl" and "Nobody," deals with unfulfilled love; the latter a stark, achingly sad dramatic monologue that includes the devastating kicker, "I never thought my life would be like this." The disc's melodically infectious title track arrives swathed in irony, suggesting a relationship that both buoys its narrator from despair while locking her into compromise.

Producer Jay Joyce has unfortunately larded the album with chimey, jangling, reverbed guitar, but the songs triumph over — and will likely outlast — his poor taste.

Paul de Barros, Seattle Times arts writer

Augustana, 'Augustana' (Epic)

After a three-year absence from recording, San Diego rock band Augustana returns with guns blazing. Its self-titled third album has a rootsy, sometimes fun feel, with a good balance between vocals and instrumentation. Lead singer Dan Layus doesn't overpower his band. "Wrong Side of Love" and "Counting Stars" are sunny and bouncy; "Hurricane" leans toward soulful. But every track is album-worthy on a disc built for a spring that may eventually come (check out "Shot in the Dark") — sunglasses, convertible-top down, road trips. Bring it on.

Nick Visser, Seattle Times reporter

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