Friday, May 18, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1139: Gillian Welch

Today is the first day of a four day weekend packed with events. I spent a lot of today running errands and I’m about to run some more, but before I do I’m determined to squeeze in this review.

Disc 1139 is… Time (the Revelator)
Artist: Gillian Welch

Year of Release: 2001

What’s up with the Cover? The third cover in recent memory to feature a couch! This time Gillian sits up on an old couch, looking suitably folksy. The way she’s clutching that couch, it looks like she expects a gnarly wave to grab it and toss her toward the shore. Note to Gillian: this is not how couch surfing works.

How I Came To Know It: Welch’s reputation in the folk world is rock solid so I had heard her here and there over many years on various folk compilations I have but I’d never delved into her collection. That changed last year, and I quickly dug in deep.

How It Stacks Up:  I have four Gillian Welch albums and they are all good, but I’m going to give “Time (the Revelator)” the early edge and rank it at number one.

Ratings: 4 stars but almost 5

When you have a voice like Gillian Welch you don’t need to hide behind a lot of production and instrumentation. “Time (the Revelator)” understands this, wisely sitting back with a lone guitar or banjo and letting Welch’s vocals and these amazing songs shine.

Welch has a fearless singing style, ranging around the melody with the ease of someone knowing they can hit any note from any vantage point. Her style is grounded in traditional Americana folk and bluegrass, with strong elements of the Delta blues mixed in. The result is a pastoral sweetness mixed with a generous helping of grit and grime.

Welch’s versatility gets a workout on “Time” with songs that range with just as much daring and variety as her singing. “Dear Someone” sounds like something you’d hear late at night at a Hawaiian luau, while the guests happily settled on the beach in each other’s arms. It is followed immediately by an upbeat bluegrass number, “Red Clay Halo.” The transition could have been awkward but Welch surfs from the shores of Hawaii to the red clay dirt of the American backcountry with ease. Maybe on that couch in the cover photo…but I digress.

This album isn’t just about Welch’s singing, however; the guitar work on “Time” is some of the finest I’ve heard. The guitar is flat-picked and stark, with a big sound that conveys a lot of emotion in every note, and a lot of space between the notes to let that feeling sink in. I believe this is mostly David Rawlings on lead, but I’m not sure. Either way, Rawlings is the hidden weapon on this (and many other) Gillian Welch albums. He’s the equivalent to Tom Waits’ wife, Kathleen Brennan, co-writing the songs and a big part of the success, even if his partner is the headliner on the record.

The lyrics on “Time” are lush and honest, none more so than “My First Lover”. A first love is a topic that is often idealized, but Welch allows for no romantic reimagining in her reverie. It’s the tale of a wild love, with passionate sex dripping just off screen of every scene, but it isn’t true love. As Welch puts it:

“He was tall and breezy with his long hair down
But he gets a little hazy when I think of him now”

And then later:

“I do not remember any fights or fits
Just a shaky morning after callin' it quits”

Maybe a few hard feelings, but they’re well in the past now. Mostly Welch is just long done with her long-haired lothario.

Elvis Presley Blues” is a bluesy number that captures the King’s famous hip-swinging with a series of powerful images that stack one on the other throughout the song, until it is like Presley is dancing right in front of you:

“And he shook it like a chorus girl
And he shook it like a Harlem Queen
He shook it like a midnight rambler, baby
Like you never seen, like you never seen, never seen”

Welch sings the lines high in her head voice and Rawlings picks some of the prettiest guitar you’ll hear. The song doesn’t make you want to swivel your hips, but it does make you sway with the memory of the glory of those early days of rock and roll.

Everything is Free” is a confessional of a down-and-outer, dreaming of making one big score, or maybe just “getting a straight job/I done it before”. The song has a soft and heart-worn wander that gets you into head space of someone down on their luck, but still clutching a few dreams. You can just tell things aren’t going to work out for this character yet again, making their stubborn refusal to give up even more tragic.

The record ends with “I Dream a Highway.” It is over 14 minutes long, with a refrain of the song title at the end of every one of its many quatrains, but never feels stale. Instead, the constant repetition puts your mind in a state of quiet meditation. “I Dream a Highway” is a song that seems to recognize that life’s long journey may make you weary from time to time, but it also has a wonderful rhythm if you just open your heart and listen to it. Not unlike this album – now go do that.

Best tracks: Time (the Revelator), My First Lover, Elvis Presley Blues, Everything is Free, I Dream a Highway

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