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A Broken-Hearted Nation Searches for Answers

Gillian Welch: The Harrow and the Harvest

Sunday Night Journal — October 30, 2011

I was about to say that a couple of months ago I mentioned that this album was available for streaming from NPR. Then I checked the post where I mentioned it and found that it was actually four months ago—late June. This sort of thing is happening to me more and more. The carousel of the year has been continually speeding up for some time, but lately it’s become almost disorienting. Just when I think I’ve begun to get used to it, and am no longer making seriously inaccurate guesses about how long ago something happened, it gets even faster, and I’m doing it again. Can it really be football season again already? More than halfway through football season, as a matter of fact. And how can I have wasted so much time?

Likewise, I was a little surprised to find that it’s been closer to three than to four years since I reviewed Gillian Welch’s Time the Revelator. But a melancholy reflection is an appropriate beginning for a discussion of her work.  HarrowAndHarvest

I liked Time a lot, though there were a couple of songs on it that I wasn’t very enthusiastic about—not that I disliked them, but I found them somewhat less interesting than the rest. On that score, The Harrow and the Harvest is better. In fact it comes pretty close to being perfect, in that every song is extremely fine and extremely well performed. To my taste, the only one that seems to lower the standard a bit is the lively banjo-based “Six White Horses.” But as it’s the only song on the album which could be described as anywhere near bright in mood, it provides a little needed contrast to the dark colors of the others.

Time the Revelator is ten years old now, and yet this new album sounds as if it might have been recorded the following year: similar songs performed in similar ways. I can imagine a critic complaining that there has been too little development, that the duo of Welch and her collaborator David Rawlings are not progressing, not discovering new things. That would be misleading on two counts. First, there is an album between the two, Soul Journey, which I have not heard, but which is said to be rather different in mood and style: more upbeat, and having more elaborate instrumentation, including drums. Second, and more importantly, though they may be doing the same sort of thing here, they’re doing it better. Yes, it’s a relatively small and subtle improvement, but it’s an improvement: not that every song here is better than every song on Time, but they’re even more consistently rich, and I think the new album is more unified. I’m used to musicians who do brilliant things early in their careers, and continue in the same vein but with less inspiration and conviction. Those few who continue to be brilliant usually change substantially, exhausting one style and moving on to something else: Tom Waits is the best example. It’s unusual to find a high level of achievement continued in a similar way at an equally high or higher level.

I supposed, on first exposure to Welch’s country-based voice and songs, that she had grown up in the south and that its musical culture had been part of her life, and was pretty surprised to learn that she was born in New York and grew up in Los Angeles, in the midst of the entertainment industry. Well, I thought, that just goes to show you how strong the music is, and how gifted she is, to have absorbed that whole way of expression. But I learned just now that there’s more to the story. Yes, according to the Wikipedia biography, she was born in New York City (on my birthday, which pleases me absurdly), and when she was three her parents moved to Los Angeles and became writers for The Carol Burnett Show. But she was adopted, and there is some reason to think that her biological mother may have been from North Carolina—which provides a starting place for an interesting train of thought about heredity.

This music is commonly referred to nowadays as Americana or American roots music: folk-based, but not directly imitative, comprised mostly of original songs with an obvious debt to either the country or blues traditions or both. In Welch’s case, it’s sometimes hard to tell what’s traditional and what’s original. Some songs that make extensive use of folk terms and phrases are obviously original, too sophisticated (lyrically or musically or both), to be folk songs. But I am really not sure about a few of them—the above-mentioned “Six White Horses,” or “Red Clay Halo” on Time, for instance. The latter doesn’t sound really sound like a folk song, but it could be an old Nashville tune from the ‘40s or ‘50s. In other words, the blending of traditional and original elements is pretty nearly seamless, which is high praise.

People would flat-out ask me, 'Don't you have any happy love songs?' Well, as a matter of fact, I don't. I've got songs about orphans and morphine addicts.

The album is also pretty dark, in a way that is certainly supported by the tradition but is also undoubtedly Welch’s own predilection. The speaker in Welch’s first-person lyrics is sometimes clearly someone else, but “Dark Turn of Mind” seems to be about herself:

I see the bones in the river
I feel the wind through the pine
And I hear the shadows a-callin’
To a girl with a dark turn of mind

But though almost everything here is dark, melancholy, and more resigned than hopeful, it isn’t hopeless. There’s a light out there somewhere. The girl with the dark turn of mind is happy at night. And in “Hard Times,” though the “Camptown man” who sang “Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind” as he plowed his fields seems defeated at the end of the song, the story isn’t over:

But the Camptown man he doesn’t plow no more
I seen him walking down to the cigarette store
Guess he lost that knack and he forgot that song
Woke up one morning and the mule was gone
So come all you ragtime kings
And come on you dogs (dolls?) and sing
Pick up your dusty old horn and give it a blow
Playing “hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind”

It’s clear that Welch and Rawlings are pretty much equals in this collaboration: certainly in performance, and by their account, and by the crediting of the songs to both, in writing as well. So I don’t know why the duo is persistently known only by the name of one of them. Perhaps at this point it’s just for consistent branding. At any rate, Rawlings’s contribution has to be recognized. He is an extremely fine guitarist. He doesn’t sound anything like Richard Thompson, but like Thompson he applies a very far-ranging vocabulary and a lot of invention to fairly straightforward folk-based chord progressions, and the result has a lot to do with the fact that although most of the material here is similar not only in basic sound but in tempo and mood, I don’t get bored with it. And I really should: an album of consistently slow, somewhat lengthy songs, all very similar in musical texture, sounds on the face of it like something that I wouldn’t be able to sit through all at once. But within those limits there’s a lot of invention: beautiful melody lines, consistently rich and skillful lyrics, and of course Rawlings’s guitar.

As excellent as Rawlings’s playing is, I’ve always wished his tone were bigger and fuller. It’s very tight and trebly, really sort of flat, and I sometimes wish I were hearing the same notes played in a tone like, for instance, that heard on the old Ian and Sylvia albums. I have to admit, though, that the very bright tone fits well with Welch’s broad, soft strumming. She uses the sort of guitar I wish he did: a big Gibson. His, I just learned, is in fact a rather odd instrument, a 1935 Epiphone archtop, a smaller-than-average guitar and apparently not a particularly high-quality one in its day. Well, it’s certainly distinctive. It sounds almost like a resonator guitar.

I haven't said anything about Welch's singing, thinking somehow that it goes without saying that she is really, really good. But then I'm not assuming that everyone who reads this has heard her, so I should say it. She has a low, rich voice, not the sharp sort of sound one associates with country singers: more like a torch singer than, say, a Dolly Parton. And it suits the material perfectly. The fact that she has recorded with Emmylou Harris and Allison Kraus should tell you how she's regarded by her fellow artists.

Anyway: if you have heard and liked the earlier work of Welch and Rawlings, it is pretty certain that you’ll like this. A week or so ago they were on Austin City Limits, and the program can be viewed online at the PBS site. The first half features the very interesting band The Decemberists. In the Welch-Rawlings half, you can see Gillian buck-dance. And by the way, in case you were wondering, it’s “Gillian” as in “gill”, as in how fish breath, not “jill.” as in jack-and. I’m not sure which is standard. I thought I remembered Gillian Anderson’s name (The X-Files) being pronounced as “jillian.”

Comments

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I'm really glad you posted this. When I was trying to decide what to get from eMusic, I remembered your post in June and that I had listened to the album and really liked it. I could even remember what GW looked like. I just could not remember her name. I was going to ask you, but I didn't even have enough details to ask the question.

AMDG

Happy to be of service.:-) If you liked it on one hearing, I expect you'll like it even more subsequently.

I am pretty sure that this record is going to be on my 'Best of the Year' list when I get around to drawing it up. I agree with you about Rawlings and his guitar: amazing playing, but I wish it were a little more forward in the 'mix'.

(I put 'mix' in quotes because I understand that they recorded the album live with a single microphone, rather than close-miking each instrument and recording them separately, as is often done in the studio.)

Anyway, a nice review. Thanks.

You're welcome. Have you seen them perform? Rawlings makes me uncomfortable--the way he holds his guitar, sort of away from his body, looks awkward and unstable. But obviously it works for him.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k_Mz_imdISk

AMDG

I bought this after a recommendation somewhere on the web (maybe on 'Whosoever desires'). It is v. good.

What is 'Whosoever desires'?

As usual, I have to wait and watch that later, Janet.

It's not great, great, but I thought it was interesting. I found it when I was looking for a bigger image of the cover.

AMDG

You can download a big high-res one at eMusic. Click on the cover, which gives you a 600x600 one you can save-as, and a button that says "download hi-res" that gives you a 1400x1400 one.

Thanks. I never would have realized that those were birds on her head. I don't think I would want to cozy up to an owl like that!

AMDG

It's a Jesuit website. In fact, their post on the group is more recent than when I bought it. Maybe it was FB?

http://whosoeverdesires.wordpress.com/

Yes, Mac, I have seen them live, once. It was on the Revelator tour, so quite a while ago now. They were really good. He does hold the guitar funny, and kind of shakes it in a way that I have not seen elsewhere. But, like you say, his fingers still seem to know where to go.

I've not yet heard The Harrow and the Harvest, but a friend of mine bought it and is going to lend it to me. He also got the new Waterboys album, which is a collection of Yeats poems that Mike Scott has set to music. He thinks it's the best thing they've done since "Room to Roam," which came out in 1990.

I've seen Welch & Rawlings live a couple times -- Rawlings guitar playing is very interesting. Seems to me he does considerably more note-bending than most acoustic guitar players, and his holding the neck of his instrument away from his body is related to that, in how he pulls the strings. Most guitarists seem instead to lift the neck when they do that.

Another good recent "folk" record loosely similar to Welch and Rawlings is "Barton Hollow" by the duo known as The Civil Wars. Their music has more of an emphasis on shared vocals and harmonies than W&R, and often includes piano in the mix, since the female singer of the group, Joy Williams, is a pianist.

It's the way he seems to be pushing the neck away from his body with the left hand, and holding the body tight against him with his right arm. Looks like there would be so much tension in his arms that it would be constricting. But it must not be--obviously it works. I hadn't really noticed bending, especially. You have to go either up or down if you're actually bending the string, but maybe he's doing a more classical style vibrato, which is side-to-side.

I can't remember if I ever replied to your email with the Civil Wars clips. They were *really* good. I read a little about them and it caused me to fear for them: I was thinking that in the videos she looks like she is really in love with the guy, but I found out she's married, not to him.

I've not heard of The Civil Wars before, but they look like just the sort of thing I like. I'm going to check them out. Thanks, Rob G.

I am goihg for the Mr Yeats one, though I'm sorry to see it doesn't have 'Down By the Sally Gardens'. That is usually a signal for a show stopper, eg Planxty, Scholl

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrDdRLDaZtE

That's beautiful.

I haven't heard anything by the Waterboys since Fisherman's Blues, which I liked but not wildly. Kind of hard to imagine them doing justice to Yeats. Hmm...I just decided what to post for weekend music, if I can find it.

The Waterboys have done Yeats at least once before, on 'Fisherman's Blues,' actually:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jg-oJKYIinQ

"...the world's more full of weeping than you can understand."

Forgot how good that was! Brings tears to my eyes...and I'm not even Irish.

I have that album and thought I liked it, although I haven't heard it for a long time, so at first I couldn't account for why I didn't even remember that this was on it. Then when I played the video and got to the point where the recitation begins, I remembered it. I didn't think the recitation worked very well with the music, somehow. I do love the poem, though, and that one line is a killer.

YouTube kindly supplied this related video, Loreena McKennit performing what I assume is her own setting of "The Stolen Child". On one hearing I'm not knocked out by it, but it might grow on me. I covet the guitar player's tone.

"I didn't think the recitation worked very well with the music, somehow."

Funny you say that. I used to think that too, but as time has gone by the more I've come to appreciate it.

I can see how one might. I'll give it a chance. I think I have developed an over-reaction to self-conscious Irishness and it probably kicked in on this.

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