Gillian Welch – The Harrow & The Harvest (CD Review)

Gillian Welch – The Harrow & The Harvest (CD Review)

1. Scarlet Town 2. Dark Turn Of Mind 3. The Way It Will Be 4. The Way It Goes 5. Tennessee
6. Down Along The Dixie Line 7. Six White Horses 8. Hard Times 9. Silver Dagger
10. The Way The Whole Thing Ends
Label – Acony Records / Warner Brothers (UK Release)
UPC – 805147110922
Release Date – 28 June 2011
Time – 46:01
The album block is finally over for songwriter Gillian Welch who returns after an 8-year absence with her 5th album and her first album since 2003’s SOUL JOURNEY. The folk roots flag is once again flying for this much revered artist. The music Welch creates harks back to a by-gone age so maybe this drought can be viewed as a mere blip. Her long-time fans have had a patient wait but she will also now draw from a new fan base, who thanks to the likes of Mumford & Sons are now acclimatized to wooden music with the sounds of banjo’s and acoustic guitars. Also Welch has made herself known as she continued to work through these “fallow years” collaborating with artists like Conor Oberst, Ryan Adams, Old Crow Medicine Show, and The Decemberists. Regarding the latter Welch’s name has been inked onto the nominee list for the 10th Annual Americana Honors & Awards following her contribution on the track ‘Down By The Water’ (video) with the indie-rock outfit on their The King Is Dead album.
From reports it appears over the past 8-years she and her musical career partner David Rawlings had written hundreds of songs enough for 3 albums but have ended up in a songwriting graveyard, come bonfire, because they were not satisfied with the final results. She relates: “We just didn’t like the songs we were writing” and “They just weren’t what we wanted to say”. The duo who first met and played together when they were graduates in Boston attending the Berklee School of Music later became the backbone of the modern Americana era. They gained both high profiles and Grammys working with T Bone Burnett on the ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou? Soundtrack.
The seeds for THE HARROW & THE HARVEST began when Welch, now 43, worked on the Dave Rawling Machine’s album called ‘A Friend of a Friend’ from 2009. After they returned from the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in October 2010 they became inspired and set themselves a fresh goal to studiously write a new song each week. By early January the albums 10 tracks were penned and by February had been recorded at the historic Woodland Studios in East Nashville (Woodland video tour); whose client list includes names such as Willie Nelson, Neal Diamond, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash, Steve Earle, Dusty Springfield, Shania Twain and Whiskeytown. The album produced by Dave Rawlings marks something of a return to their roots and the romance Nashville held for them both in the early days, when they moved there in 1992. They began to perfect their traditional-based sound in unison immersing themselves in its history.
Like with previous recordings it may have Gillian Welch’s name of the cover but they are essentially duo projects. Welch and Rawlings co-wrote all the songs and play all the instruments. The arrangements are sparse and subtle with just acoustic guitar, banjo, harmonica and hand-and-knee slaps resulting in a simple collection of unapologetic folk-country numbers. As a farming implement a harrow by its purpose is to provide a good tilth and finish for sowing purposes to later reap a harvest over a growing season. Away from the hustle and bustle of modern day life the duo lovingly cultivate an almost concept project as 10 different clods of earth become carefully moulded into small portraits to which Welch terms them as “10 different kinds of sad”
This is reflected in the album cover artwork fashioned by Savannah based painter and musician John Dyer Baizley. Cost and time was not of the essence for Welch & Rawlings as they care enough about the product and it’s art as much as the music itself (See videos – On the making of the letterpressed album cover insert and how to coffee-stain your cover )
On the dark, bleak and mysterious opener ‘Scarlet Town’ Welch sings: I don’t mind a little town /
Or drinking my coffee cold / But the things I seen in Scarlet Town/ Done mortify my soul
. Is this retribution or a state of mind in a strange place? Gillian has been steeped in American history and possibly she refers to The Ballad of Barbara Allen whereby the details of the tales pan put in the fictitious Scarlet Town. On this number with nimble guitar runs and its old-time feel she sings: On the day I came to Scarlet Town you promised I’d be your bride / You left me here to rot away like holly on the mountainside. As death comes knocking at the door with a knuckle tapping on a guitar she continues: I’ve been looking through a telescope from hell to Scarlet Town.
The wind blows slowly through the pines on the melancholic and quite bluesy ‘Dark Turn of Mind’. On this heartbreaking ballad just two guitars gently guide the song along. The girl character doesn’t wanted be treated badly again that left her in a poor way. She finds comfort and beauty in the darkness of nighttimes:
Some girls are bright as the morning; some girls are blessed with a dark turn of mind
A woman is made to choose between two lovers on ‘The Way It Will Be’. It was previously performed at live shows under the title ‘Throw Me A Rope’. The cut that made the album was a test run in the studio which captured the meeting of their voices in the air towards the end of the song.
Human frailties are exposed on the brisk and melodic ‘The Way It Goes’. There is an immediate reference to drugs with its opening line: Becky Johnson bought the farm /Put a needle in her arm. Welch points the social compass at break-up, relationships gone sour, death and hints of a mystery murder: Did he throw her down the well or did she leave him for that swell? It’s a commentary on the darker side of human natures reaping and sowing. One moment death circles overhead and then the renewing of the life cycle begin with the line: Everybody’s buying little baby clothes
The well crafted ‘Tennessee’ is a slow, dark and sultry ballad. Its structure has 70’s echoes of a Graham Nash and David Crosby composition. Here the character openly confesses she has no desire for salvation on its opening lines: Kissed you cause I’ve never been an angel / I learned to say hosannas on my knees. She toils with leading an honest and homely live – “Why can’t I go and live the life rightly? Why can’t I go back home to apple pie?” In trying “to be a good girl” falls fowl to temptation “Now I’ve tried drinking rye and gamblin’ Dancing with damnation is a ball”. With her typical trademark unhurried drawl Welch delivers the killer line: But of all the little ways I’ve found to hurt myself, Well you might be my favorite one of all.
Gillian draws words from the traditional folk song and confederate anthem “Way Down In Dixie” on the slow and dreamy sepia-toned ‘Down Along The Dixie Line’. It’s longing for special southern child memories – “I spent my childhood walking the wildwood….I was so happy with Momma and Pappy”. Whilst bemoaning the fact there’s no returning to those days: “They pulled up the tracks now I can’t go back” The halcyon memories are now left in the past with it’s closing lines: Can’t you hear those drivers wail? / Can’t you see those bright rails shine? / Gonna catch that Fireball Mail / Leaving north and far behind.
With its banjo, harmonica and hand-slapping rhythm Six White Horses’ makes for a joyful country hoedown. Look deeper though and it’s referring to a funeral procession: “Six white horses, coming two by two, coming for my mother, no matter how I love her”. Welch names one of the horses “Bedlam” which can describe a state of confusion, chaos or madness and in scripture we read of bedlam in Bethlehem. After sunshine and sorrow, yesterday and tomorrow the narrator wishes that she can keep a rein on time and stop those wheels from turning so quickly. But the inevitable will eventually happen as on some bright morning those six white horses will be coming for her.
On the gentle and slow paced ‘Hard Times’ Welch plays a clawhammer banjo and the close harmonies are of particular note. There is a hark back to days when life was more simple as the song begins as a conversational piece between a “camp town” farmer and his trusty mule: Come on my sweet old girl, and I’d bet the whole damn world, That we’re gonna make it yet to the end of the row. There’s a spirit that will overcome the hardships and life can be celebrated but with a realization that things change and life can quickly slip by – “That big machine is just picking up speed”. Welch demands those Asheville boys kick up some dust, turn up the old-time noise, wipe off the old horn and give it a blow before it’s too late. The song loosely references to Stephen Foster’s ‘Hard Times Come Again No More’ from 1854 which was a call to pause in life’s pleasures but show sympathy towards those less fortunate – “and count its many tears while we all sup sorrow with the poor”
The sweet sound of ‘Silver Dagger’ has a lovely lightness. It speaks of painful times and blue days when life was hard to endure – “I’m through with Bibles and I’m through with food”. Then a period of freedom and happiness when back in 1999 – “I found the angels a-drinking wine”. Perhaps the silver dagger provides a metaphor recalling the following decade of terror and desert wars as castles become sand and inside every man lies “the great destroyer”
From the ‘The Way It Will Be’ to ‘The Way It Goes’ we finally arrive at the rather plodding ‘The Way The Whole Thing Ends’ which at just over 6-minutes is a little drawn out. It depicts a tale of a forlorn figure, as a faithless lover returns stood crying at the backdoor. He may once have been her shining knight but now he is no more a friend. There is no going back and a resignation of fate looms with the line: That’s the way the corn bread crumbles.
An artist may like a listener to absorb an album in it’s completeness but much like this long awaited return it might be advisable to have patience and take the time to absorb the songs individual textures and layers which gradually unfold. The long fallow period churning the ground has indeed produced for the Welch / Rawlings partnership a bountiful return.

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