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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1251

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Gillian Welch: Time (The Revelator)
by George Graham

(Arcony Records 0103 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/22/2001)

It's interesting and rather encouraging to see the current stylistic revivals of everything from swing music to bluegrass to 60s psychedelia, with younger performers taking up styles that may have already gone by the wayside by the time they were born. And many of these youthful artists have cultural and musical backgrounds quite different than one would expect for the style of music they are playing.

This week, we have a stellar example. It's the new, third CD by Gillian Welch, called Time (The Revelator). Ms. Welch, still in her early thirties, has attracted a good deal of attention with her uncanny ability to evoke traditional style country folk in the mold of the Carter Family and even older Appalachian styles. And she does it with original music that sounds as if was written in the early part of the 20th Century, with simple, hymn-like melodies, open-two part vocal harmonies she does with her long-time collaborator David Rawlings, and lyrics imbued with the elliptical, indirect language that was part of old traditional songs that dealt with sex and violence. Ms. Welch's compositions have been recorded by others including Emmylou Harris and most recently Allison Krauss and Union Station, and she has been appearing on various projects, including the soundtracks to the hit films "O Brother Where Art Thou" and "Songcatcher" plus recent a tribute album to Mississippi John Hurt. Ms. Welch's own recordings have been haunting in their stark, melancholy quality that has served to make them all the more powerful.

But for all her authenticity with traditional styles, Gillian Welch comes from a very different background. She grew up in Hollywood -- her parents worked for the old Carol Burnett show on TV, and young Gillian was often to be found playing on the set when her parents brought her along, or with members of the cast over for dinner. She got into music at an early age, taking up the ukulele, piano and drums. By high school she was heavily into R.E.M., and by college at the University of California at Santa Cruz, she plunged into the alternative rock scene, which she continued when she attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston, probably best known for their jazz curriculum, where she met David Rawlings. While in college in California, Ms. Welch had become intrigued by a local bluegrass band that she would go to see regularly at a pizza restaurant. She was soon plunging to more traditional musicians like the Stanley Brothers, and also drawing influence from more contemporary bluegrass and folk players. With Rawlings, Ms. Welch explored the traditional sounds, and after graduating, they moved to Nashville and the two pursued songwriting for others. But Ms. Welch also landed a record contract and hooked up with producer T Bone Burnett, who would later go on to produce the "O Brother Where Art Thou" soundtrack.

Ms. Welch's first album, appropriately entitled Revival, was produced by Burnett and attracted a good deal of attention for its sound which seemed to echo from 50 years ago in the Tennessee Mountains. Ms. Welch and Rawlings followed that up in 1998 with Hell Among the Yearlings, which was, if anything, an even more striking recording.

Now Ms. Welch and Rawlings are out with Time (The Revelator), and it marks bit of a change for the duo, mainly lyrically. After having worked with Burnett for two CDs, they produced this one themselves, and recorded it in the historic RCA Studio B in Nashville, which is now part of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Most of the CD was recorded live, with almost no overdubbing, and according to Ms. Welch, a good portion of it consists of first takes. The sound is a little less old-timey, with the clawhammer-style banjo that was so prominent on their last album being less of a presence. And lyrically the new album is an interesting juxtaposition, with songs about more contemporary subjects, including about rock & roll, while the musical setting remains in about the 1930s. The result is as intriguing as their last CD, and it is also apparent how sympathetic the musical relationship has become between Ms. Welch and Rawlings, in their vocal harmonies and even their guitar playing. The album consists almost entirely of the pair sitting together and playing. No other musicians appear, and if there is any overdubbing, it's not readily apparent.

The CD was evidently recorded over a period of time, with a difference in sonic texture from track to track. But the intimate sound that continues to evoke early country music ghosts, remains center stage.

The album begins with what amounts to being its title track, The Revelator, a term taken from an old Mississippi John Hurt song. The composition itself is somewhat cryptic lyrically, and in style, is more typical of contemporary singer-songwriters than traditional country, but Ms. Welch and Rawlings' haunting sound remains intact. <<>>

One of the more interesting pieces is My First Lover, with a very old-timey sound, though the story in the song about a ex-boyfriend, takes a more contemporary direction. <<>>

Perhaps the most traditional-sounding track on the album is Red Clay Halo, which takes the form of a kind of Gospel song done nicely in an old-timey folk style. Ms. Welch and Rawlings again show their ability to create songs that sound as old as the hills. <<>>

There is a kind of rock and roll trilogy on the CD. It begins with April the 14th Part 1, a slow, contemplative song about a typical bad gig for a local rock band. <<>>

That leads into a wonderful musical juxtaposition. The track called I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll, is done in the form on an old-fashioned Gospel song, as if what used to be considered the devil's music, was the sacred sound on the way to heaven. <<>>

That is followed by Elvis Presley Blues, a charming song that again elevates rock, and one of its great icons, to a kind of heavenly figure, while describing the gyrations that kept Elvis being shown only from the waist up on early TV shows. <<>>

One of the most downright pretty pieces on the album is Dear Someone, a kind of love song of longing. It's an old-fashioned waltz highlighting the duo's remarkable vocal harmonies.

The album ends with a nearly fifteen-minute track called I Dream a Highway, which the duo said they recorded as a first take, and indeed it was the first time they had performed the entire piece together. It's almost hypnotic as it moves ever so slowly both musically and lyrically. It's basically another song of longing, and the duo are able to sustain the contemplative, melancholy mood for the length of the piece. <<>>

On Time (The Revelator), Gillian Welch and her partner David Rawlings have created another striking album that evokes traditional Appalachian folk and old-time country with their original songs. This album is more intimate than its predecessors in that it's just the two very sympathetic players making all the music by themselves. But the CD is a bit more wide-ranging lyrically, with the interesting mixture of lyrical images of rock and roll with the sounds and terminology of old-time Gospel music. The result is both fascinating in sound and concept, and yet languorous in mood. The chemistry between Ms. Welch and Rawlings is also quite rare, in some ways like sibling groups in their close, interweaving vocal harmonies.

Sonically, we'll give the CD about an A-Minus. The technical quality of the recordings varies quite a bit from one track to the next, with some disappointingly bedeviled by analogue tape artifacts, and the stereo effect also varying from strictly mono to a nice spatial perspective. But most of the CD sounds decent, and there is a good dynamic range on most of the tracks.

Like increasing numbers of younger performers reviving older sounds. Gillian Welch has an unlikely background for doing traditional country-style music. But she and David Rawlings have become the among the best of the neo-traditionalists.

(c) Copyright 2001 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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