Gillian Welch, The Harrow & The Harvest
Whenever I hear Gillian Welch, whether she’s doing her thing, David Rawlings’s thing, or even the Decemberists’ thing or Old Crow Medicine Show’s thing, I think about her photo on the cover of Time (The Revelator). You know the one, where Ms. Welch is sitting sideways on the end of a plaid couch (of the Appalachian, hand-me-down variety), wearing a floral dress, looking like she might be getting ready to get out of there, or maybe stay. You never really know what she’s thinking. For me, that cover shot is the perfect picture of Ms. Welch. I was hoping they’d reprise it on Soul Journey, and I wish they had put it on this album, too. But since they didn’t, I suppose the faux-medieval motif works. You can’t tell what she’s thinking there, either, with her right hand pointing into the air. I wonder what Mr. Rawlings is whispering to her?
Mr. Rawlings could have been whispering about how happy they must be to finally have a “Gillian Welch” album out, or how tired he is of answering questions about why it took so long. He could (and should) be whispering about how good Ms. Welch sounds on this album (or how good he sounds, for that matter – if possible, his guitar work is even better than the last time out). The CD has a stripped-down sound (assuming it can be stripped-down if it was never built up in the first place – as Steve Earle would say, this ain’t no unplugged album) that focuses us on her voice, his guitar and the lyrics. The music is old and it’s new, it’s all original (it is) but it’s been around forever. It’s like if you had this classic older house and decided to expand it a bit. It takes a bit longer than you planned, but finally, old rooms are made larger or new ones are added on. After it’s done, your visitors can’t tell where the project begins or ends, leaving the impression that the house has always been just like that. Very much like the old, but new and impressive, a seamless transition.
Seamless. That’s how it looks, sounds and feels when Ms. Welch and Mr. Rawlings play and sing together. Like they’re a single life form, only diverging to show us opposite sides of the same being. Maybe that takes it too far, but I don’t think it’s too much to say that they were made to play and sing together. Here they are performing The Way It Goes on Conan. See what I mean?
As we enter another July 4 weekend, it’s hard not to think of how distinctly American this album is. Hard Times is a song about a poor farmer singing to his mule about how he knows they’re going to make it to the end of the row. How American can you get? The farmer concludes, “Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind.” In The Way It Goes, our wayward girl is “busted broke and flat, had to sell that pussycat.” And in Tennessee, our narrator says she kissed him because she’s “never been an angel” and though she tries to be good, “It’s only what I want that makes me weak. I had no desire to be a child of sin, then you went and pressed your whiskers to my cheek.” While a bit dark, these are timeless, American songs.
The Harrow & The Harvest was released June 28, 2011 on Acony Records.
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