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Sunday Night Journal — January 27, 2008

Music of the Week — January 27, 2008

Gillian Welch: Time (The Revelator)

For most of this album you’re hearing one voice and two guitars, sometimes only one. There’s a second voice singing harmony on the choruses; there’s a banjo on one track, and a faint drum, or maybe just a foot stomping, on another. To hold a listener’s attention for the better part of an hour with these limited resources requires some really fine songs. And this album delivers: it’s just a few songs short of greatness. The overall pace is slow, the tone melancholy, and it was a very justifiable decision to throw in a couple of more up-tempo songs for variety. But to my taste those two (“Red Clay Halo” and “I Wanna Sing That Rock and Roll”) just don’t measure up; they come across as throw-aways.

The others vary from very good to great, including the best song about Elvis Presley I’ve ever heard (“Elvis Presley Blues”), a striking two-part meditation on certain great events and (one gathers) a couple of private ones that have occurred on April 14 (“Ruination Day”), and, most improbably, a song lasting almost fifteen minutes which tells no story and is fairly repetitive musically but nevertheless never gets tiresome for me. Welch’s voice is wonderful without being outstanding, if that makes sense: I mean that it isn’t striking, like Emmy Lou Harris’s, or spectacular, like Patty Griffin’s, but it’s perfect for what she does—warm and relaxed and just slightly countrified, which is pretty strange for someone who grew up in Los Angeles as the child of two television writers.

If you read these little reviews regularly you know I place a high value on lyrics, and these hooked me from the very first verse:

Darling remember
When you come to me
I’m the pretender
And not what I’m supposed to be
But who could know
if I’m a traitor?
Time’s a revelator.

I assume Welch wrote the lyrics, but the songs are credited to Welch and her collaborator David Rawlings, who is also the provider of the other voice and guitar, making one wonder if crediting the album to Welch alone is quite accurate. But that’s their business. You can listen to samples here.



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