Review : Gillian Welch - The Harrow & The Harvest
PopmattersOnce people fall for Gillian Welch’s music, they tend to fall hard. A fierce brand of loyalty establishes itself not so much around how or why Welch and partner David Rawlings may be better than other performers in the country/folk/roots/old-time/Americana scenes, but rather around more insular questions regarding the comparative merits of particular Welch albums. It’s the kind of debate that often plays itself out while waiting for a favorite artist to release new material and, while the Dave Rawlings Machine released A Friend of a Friend (an album on which Welch appeared) in 2009, it’s been eight long years since Welch’s last. When it comes to the comparison game, it is that album, Soul Journey, and its predecessor, 2001’s Time (The Revelator), that are most frequently mentioned.
Both albums are typically seen to be game-changing evolutions of the template Welch and Rawlings essayed on their first two albums. The most obvious points of comparison relate to instrumental style, with Time (The Revelator) focusing on the tried-and-tested formula of Welch’s old-time voice and Rawlings’s intricate guitar-work, and Soul Journey employing a full band with drums and electric guitars. But the differences were more profound than that, for reasons easily connected to the albums’ titles. In a mysterious, unfathomable, but instinctively recognizable way, the songs on Time (The Revelator) played with time itself, expanding it and shrinking it, allowing short tracks to seem epic and epic tracks to fly by in an instant. There was a trance-like quality to the music which suggested that the songs were reaching for some kind of mystical bond. Welch’s music had always sounded old—from the opening chords of her debut album Revival in 1996 onwards—but there was something more here, something cosmically ancient. Soul Journey, meanwhile, evoked space and movement with its beautifully-paced mini road movies, lovesick daughters, Dead Heads, and Dylanesque wild mercury sounds. At the same time, both albums defied simple classification, showing instead the ways in which time opens into space and vice versa. However interpreted, they set the bar for subsequent Welch/Rawlings output as high as it could be....full text
UncutWhen an artist spends eight years working on – or at least working towards – a new record, it is easy to expect a certain extravagance: complex arrangements, perhaps; an unusual number of songs; possibly even a challenging new direction.
Those who come looking for any of this on Gillian Welch’s fifth album, “The Harrow And The Harvest”, are likely to be disappointed. In fact, Welch and David Rawlings have delivered the exact opposite kind of record: ten simple songs, featuring just the two of them singing and playing guitars, banjo and harmonica, with no great stylistic departures to spook the horses. Eight years passed, it seems, with the duo pathologically refining what they had, rather than elaborating upon it.
The result, as a consequence, is an album with ten new songs that in many cases – “Down Along The Dixie Line” and “Silver Dagger”, especially - could be mistaken for standards, so crafted and evolved that they feel like the work of many discreet hands, over decades. The title of “The Harrow And The Harvest” is a metaphor for the record’s lengthy gestation, I think, as well as a manifestation of Welch and Rawlings’ rurally-inclined aesthetic. Check them out on the cover, drawn as almost pagan deities amidst wild symbolism by metal artist John Baizley, a kind of art-deco companion piece to the cover of Joanna Newsom’s “Ys”....full text
MusicomhIf a week is a long time in politics, then eight years, even by today's sluggish release cycle, is a very long time in the music business. It's entirely possible that an artist might be entirely forgotten during such a gestation but, whilst she has been spending time with her family, Gillian Welch's already near-iconic stock has risen yet further. Her admirers speak of her work in hallowed terms and the recent album by her musical and lifetime partner David Rawlings (ostensibly very similar with the balance of the vocal harmonies reversed) failed to satiate her fans' anticipation. The Harrow & The Harvest therefore arrives facing very lofty expectations. It succeeds in meeting them in the most relaxed and confident way possible – by simply restating Welch and Rawlings' core musical values with everything extraneous rigorously removed.
This is one of the most defiantly traditional, non-radical and deceptively simple albums in recent memory. It is far closer in spirit to Welch's breakthrough Time (The Revelator) than its immediate predecessor, the comparably expansive Soul Journey. The tentative steps that album made towards a full ensemble sound have not been further developed. Instead, The Harrow & The Harvest is an economical duo album, remarkably clear and pure in both its spirit and its execution. It is extraordinary how spare and subtle this music is. Acoustic guitars are strummed and picked with rare delicacy and discipline. Even the partners' trademark harmonies, still very much present, seem to have been deployed only where strictly necessary and at a new level of contemplative quiet.
Welch and Rawlings' great skill here is to produce a set of 10 original songs that sound like folk songs passed through generations. There is a song called Hard Times which not only nods to Hard Times Come Again No More, but with its initial conversation between a man and his mule, harks back to another time and place altogether. There is the persistent influence of the blues, at least filtered through the bluegrass tradition, immediately recognisable on the opener Scarlet Town and very prominent on the rollicking The Way That It Goes. There should be no tricksy concerns about 'authenticity' here, given the effortlessness with which Welch and Rawlings command this material. The music may reject virtuosity or flourish, but it is uniquely authoritative....full text
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