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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1646

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Gillian Welch: The Harrow & the Harvest
by George Graham

(Acony Records 1109 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/29/2011)

One of the interesting phenomena in contemporary music is the proliferation of artists who are absorbing and reinventing earlier styles. Not just playing the oldies or being broadly imitative of older music, but using music from earlier generations as the basis for new sounds, while still implying the sensibility of the older music. Styles from Beatles-influenced pop to Motown sounds to even vaudeville have been the source of inspiration for numerous recent recordings by younger-generation bands and artists. Folk music has always drawn on the past, more or less by definition, and lately, there have been some interesting and eclectic recordings by groups such as Crooked Still and the Punch Brothers who have drawn on traditional sounds to create something new and different.

This week, we have a new recording by someone who has attracting attention for some 15 years now with her original music that has an uncanny ability to evoke the sound and quality of traditional folk songs from the early 20th Century or before. It's Gillian Welch, and her new CD with her long-time musical partner, David Rawlings, is called The Harrow and the Harvest. It's also Welch's first CD under her name in eight years.

Gillian Welch's musical journey is an interesting one. The adopted daughter of a Hollywood show-biz couple who wrote music for the Carol Burnett TV show, Ms. Welch was exposed at an early age to folk music ranging from Bob Dylan to the Carter Family. While a student at the University of California at Santa Cruz, she played bass in what was described as "goth band" and drums in a "psychedelic surf band." But she had a musical epiphany when she heard a recording the bluegrass band The Stanley Brothers and decided that was what she wanted to do. After she graduated with a degree in photography from Santa Cruz, she attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where her major was composition. There she met her long-time musical collaborator David Rawlings, when they both auditioning for Berklee's only country band. After moving to Nashville, they began to attract some attention by music industry people, including eventually producer T-Bone Burnett, who produced their 1996 debut album Revival. It featured the song Orphan Girl, which immediately became a classic among folk and bluegrass performers, profoundly evoking the sound of a traditional folk-song handed from one generation to the next.

Though Welch and Rawlings have always worked as a team, sharing the writing and always performing together, they decided to work under Gillian Welch's name on record. Each of their CDs has received a good deal of praise for quality of writing and for the most part, for the stark, intimate sound of mostly just the two musicians. Their 2003, fourth album, featured more band instrumentation. Also, back in 2000, Ms. Welch was involved with creating some of the music for the popular soundtrack for the film O Brother Where Art Thou.

In the meantime, Dave Rawlings has had a number of outside projects, including playing and/or producing with the old Crow Medicine Show, Ryan Adams and others. Last year, he released a recording under the name The Dave Rawlings Machine, which included Ms. Welch and a few songs that they wrote together.

But now, after eight years during which Rawlings said he felt that the songwriting was just not happening to his and Ms.Welch's satisfaction, they are out with The Harrow and the Harvest, and it marks a return to the unadorned, unadulterated sound of just the duo playing their trademark instruments, Ms. Welch on her 1956 Gibson acoustic guitar, and Rawlings on his distinctive 1935 Epiphone archtop on which he plays his frequently interesting and inventive lead guitar parts. Their vocal harmonies have become virtually seamless, with Ms. Welch always on the lead.

The mood of The Harrow and the Harvest is melancholy. Rawlings has joked that its ten songs represent "ten different kinds of sad," but the often plaintive sound seems to open a portal into a kind of emotional space of introspection. While the mood is often sad, the songs are never maudlin, and while the sound evokes traditional music perhaps 100 years old, the some of the lyrics are clearly set in the present. The result is an album that is stark in its sonic simplicity and yet remarkably deep.

The opening track epitomizes the sound of the CD. Scarlet Town is a gem of melancholy sounds and lyrical emotions along with the distinctive quality of Rawlings' lead guitar. <<>>

Dark Turn of Mind is a well-named composition that is a pretty waltz evoking an old country song with the duo's best melancholy sound. <<>>

One of the more interesting pieces on the album is called The Way It Will Be, which sounds a bit more like a rock song in terms of its structure than an old traditional folk song. But the sound remains intimate, while the lyrics are emotionally multifaceted. <<>>

A song set in their home state, appropriately titled Tennessee also a lyrical highlight, full of inventive imagery, with music that follows the twists and turns of the words. <<>>

Gillian Welch plays banjo from time to time, and there are two banjo tunes on this CD. Six White Horses is another of those masterful songs that Welch and Rawlings created that one would swear is a traditional song you heard many years ago. <<>>

One song that does seem based on old music at least lyrically, is Hard Times, which is also the title of a Stephen Foster song. The lyrics also make a reference to Camptown -- and Foster also wrote The Camptown Races. But musically, it's quite different. <<>>

Silver Dagger is another song that musically evokes traditional folk, in this case the kind of songs that were popular in the 1960s folk movement. But here the words are more allegorical. <<>>

The CD ends appropriately with a track called The Way The Whole Thing Ends. At six and half minutes long, it has a couple of verses too many. But the sound remains honest and intimate. <<>>

Gillian Welch's new CD The Harrow and the Harvest, created as always, with her musical partner David Rawlings, is a real gem. The duo waited eight years until they felt they had good enough songs. The time also seems to have made them more integrated as a team. In an interview, Rawlings says "it's nearly impossible to unravel who wrote what word, what line, what sentiment." And the fact that this recording is just the two of them recorded together with no additional musicians or apparent overdubbing makes this an even greater pleasure. It's often sad-sounding on its surface, but it's remarkably rich, something lesser performers would be hard pressed to pull off in such a stark setting. Once again, Welch and Rawlings have written a great collection of compositions some of which sound uncannily like old traditional Appalachian folk songs.

Our grade for sound quality is close to an "A." The recording nicely captures the warmth and intimacy of their music, but there's a little reverb added to give it a nice, slightly atmospheric quality.

By now, it's a rather a cliché that "less is more," but it certainly is the case with the new CD Gillian Welch CD. Its outward sonic simplicity holds remarkable depth.

(c) Copyright 2011 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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