Wednesday, February 21, 2024

CD Odyssey Disc 1713: Gillian Welch

It’s been a long and stress-filled day, but it’s been a lovely evening. I’m tired, but ‘ere I let Morpheus take me I’ll squeeze in a mid-week music review.

Disc 1713 is…The Harrow & the Harvest

Artist: Gillian Welch

Year of Release: 2011

What’s up with the Cover? Gillian makes like an old school tarot card sorceress here, summoning fireballs with a wave of her hand. Beside her, a handsome gentleman (likely long-time partner and collaborator David Rawlings) whispers secrets in her ear. On David’s shoulder we have an owl.

The whole cover has the look of one of those Doodle Art posters from the seventies that you coloured in with felt pens. I’m tempted to colour this one in, but I was never great at Doodle Art and would probably just wreck it.

How I Came To Know It: For many years I resisted this relatively late effort in Welch’s career, but when I saw a cheap used copy for sale in the record store last year, I finally succumbed. I wish I’d succumbed years ago.

How It Stacks Up: I have five Gillian Welch albums. “The Harrow & the Harvest” is amazing, but so are all the other ones, and I must reluctantly place it in…fifth place.

Rating: 4 stars

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings are a one-two punch that inspire folk artists today and will be inspiring them hundreds of years from now just as much. They are timeless talents that cook up a witchy brew of traditional musical forms and make them hyper-present. Folk that confronts and challenges the listener.

This is old timey music that never sounds staid or dated. It is imminent and emotionally dangerous. You don’t put this record on to square dance in your hoop skirt, my friends. You put this record on to strip all the way down to your silk slip and sway barefoot in the moonlight.

It all starts with the voice. Gillian Welch has a generational voice. Sweet when she wants to be, but it is a thorny sweet. It is the kind of voice it hurts to fall in love with, because you know you can’t listen without feeling the feels. There is plenty of power as well, pushing out notes that curl around your soul and squeeze, sometimes reassuringly, and sometimes a bit too tight.

Enter David Rawlings on guitar, with his sprung rhythm doing the seemingly impossible by adding even greater emotional complexity and depth to Gillian’s verses. They are a perfect match, twining around one another, the lyrics dancing in your ears like a cobra, dangerous and beautiful.

Both are at their best on “The Way it Goes” a blues-adjacent number that digs into a half dozen vignettes of tragedy, starting with the stark:

“Becky Johnson bought the farm, put a needle in her arm
That's the way that it goes, that's the way
And her brother laid her down in the cold Kentucky ground
That's the way that it goes, that's the way”

It gets darker from there. Folks are thrown down wells, and others are getting buried with their pistols, and all of them feel loosely connected in a grim human tragedy. As the listener we only catch the shadowy remnants of this rogue’s gallery of characters, but the shadows alone are terrifying and tragic.

There are plenty more where that comes from. When Gillian Welch tells you she is having a “dark turn of mind” you don’t hear about how dark it gets, you feel it sinking into your bones. Darkness is a state of being, and Welch knows how to draw it out, and let it envelop you.

It’s not all darkness though, on “Hard Times” Welch finds joyful rhythms and a soaring melody. Things are still tragic, but buoyed by the sweetness of the vocals, you are left assured things will turn out just fine:

“So come, all you Asheville boys
And turn up your old-time noise
And kick 'til the dust comes up from the cracks in the floor
Singing, "Hard times ain't gonna rule my mind, brother
Hard times ain't gonna rule my mind
Hard times ain't gonna rule my mind no more"”

Damn right, they’re not.

“The Harrow & the Harvest” isn’t an easy listen, it’s a heavy meal. It takes time to digest, but if you give it the time, it will fill your heart with love and yearning in equal measure. No empty calories on this journey, though – you’ll earn every step of the journey, never wishing it could be any other way.

Best tracks: Scarlet Town, Dark Turn of Mind, The Way it Goes, Down Along the Dixie Line, Hard Times

No comments: