Sunday, July 10, 2011

Gillian Welch & David Rawlings: The Harrow and the Harvest

It's been too long (8 years) since Welch's last album Soul Journey.  It was one eagerly anticipated for years.  Since Soul Journey, Welch has been appearing on records, such as Sara Watkins' first solo album and The Decemberists' latest The King is Dead, to make them even better.  But does The Harrow and the Harvest arrive on shelves with the folk perfection and soul that have tagged Welch in previous albums?  It's worth your money (if not for the cover alone!), but it lacks some of the catchy tunes that marked the previous two albums.

We open with the upbeat-for-Welch "Scarlet Town," which is highly reminiscent of Welch's typical song choices: beautifully haunting tone, melody, and instrumentals.  Rawling's picking is outstanding, complete with crescendos and decrescendos that give life to the song, a voice on its own, much like a harmony.

Then we move to the bluesy "Dark Turn of Mind", a song of pain and scary depression, complete with imagery of darkness and night.  "Now, 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."  Is that not chilling just to read?  Wait until you hear it.

Next is the first in a set of three songs "The Way It Will Be" where man is in charge of his own destiny..."The way you made it/Is the way it will be."  So go the consequences of our decisions and actions.  Following is its up-tempo sequel "The Way It Goes", portraying the harsh realities of life in trying to accomplish dreams.  The third in this epic trilogy "The Way the Whole Thing Ends" is actually the final song on the album, and it's reflection of life's problems and reuniting with loved ones when in dire need.

"Tennessee" follows "The Way It Goes", bringing the you down from easy-going song.  It's melancholic and flowing, a song of needing the comfort of home.

"Down Along the Dixie Line" is slow and dragging, but in a good way, complimenting the song's nature.  The imagery is so vivid that you can put yourself in the song, experiencing the rural life she sings of so longingly and lovingly.

In the fun, harmonica-opening, hand-clapping "Six White Horses", Death comes to carry away the narrator's mother.  "Whoa now, horses, easy on the wheels," the narrator cries as they come all too eagerly to take her mother away.  Welch has written a fantastic old-timey gospel tune that just may be sung in churches in 50 years, much like Hank Williams' "I Saw the Light." 

We are taken back to post-Depression era in the song "Hard Times", in which the character perseveres through the harshness of life, keeping a positive and determined state of mind, declaring, "Hard times ain't gonna rule my mind."

Welch took the old melody from "You Are My Sunshine" and slowed it considerably to a terrifying and haunting tune with "Silver Dagger" in a love that has gone wrong.  "Seems that every castle is made of sand/The great destroyer sleeps in every man/Here comes my baby, here comes my man/With that silver dagger in his hand."  Happy fairy tales don't exist in the folk world, just the Grimm versions.

Welch has the uncanny knack for transporting you back in time to any era, from a century years ago to thirty years ago, with her slight musical variations, despite only having two instruments at a time.  It's amazing that she can make all the songs sound so different.  There's a reason why Welch is so highly regarded in the folk world and why her voice is so sought after.  If you get one folk album this year, make The Harrow and the Harvest be it (or The Decemberists' The King is Dead).

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