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Feature review: Gillian Welch, The Harrow and the Harvest

Gillian Welch
The Harrow and the Harvest
[Acony Records (2011)]

For their fifth record, and their first in nearly 8 years, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings return to the sparse bandless arrangements of Time (The Revelator) (2001) and Hell Among the Yearlings (1998). The Harrow and the Harvest more closely mirrors the latter, with a lyrical and melodic focus again more on the American south than Appalachia or the pan-U.S. visionary nature of their 2001 masterpiece (and pretty much completely forsaking the rock and volume of 2003’s Soul Journey), and a little more banjo, an instrument Welch first recorded on the 1998 album. The duo took a few lessons from Soul Journey, even if they ditched the extra instruments. The lyrics on Hell Among the Yearlings and Time (The Revelator), except for the out of place live take of “I Wanna Sing That Rock and Roll,” were very serious start to finish. On Soul Journey, Welch loosening up some, and there are times on the new record where you can tell that she’s smiling. As on Soul Journey, she uses the single-line repetition for some choruses, but doesn’t overdo it this time.

The Harrow and the Harvest opens with “Scarlet Town,” the tune to which is extremely close to “Caleb Meyer” from Hell Among the Yearlings. A trio of songs starting with “The Way,” “The Way It Will Be,” “The Way It Goes,” and “The Way the Whole Thing Ends” brings to mind the two-part “14th of April.” An original, “Silver Dagger,” recalls, at least for those of us who follow her career obsessively, “Katie Dear (Silver Dagger),” which they recorded with The Chieftains.  Along the way, there’s plenty of local color, like “Tennessee” and “Down Along the Dixie Line.” Things get rowdy—well, sort of—with the leg slapping (no, that’s one of the instruments) “Six White Horses,” which sounds like a jam session that didn’t want to wake the neighbors. Then there’s a lengthy closer, “The Way the Whole Thing Ends,” but the tune is a little monotonous and at six minutes it feels longer than “I Dream a Highway.”

Welch had the good fortune of coming out of the gates on Revival with a song, “Orphan Girl,” that gave her immediate near-mythic status as a songwriter, and the duo helped spawn an army of folk revivalists and immitators from those two generations Devon Leger mentioned in his editorial on Monday. Some people were initially disappointed by Soul Journey, but it’s still packed with songs many songwriters would give up a limb for. Nearly twenty years into her career, most of us start pondering which record is her “best” or most essential. To me, that’s still Time (The Revelator), one of the great songwriting achievements of the last decade. So where does The Harrow and the Harvest land? It’s more characteristically Welch-Rawlings than Soul Journey and sounds like a matured, stronger version of Hell Among the Yearlings. So that puts it somewhere around the same level as Revival. Pretty good.

The best track here turns out to be “Hard Times,” in the final stretch of the disc, a magical tune set to with a heartbreaking, if not entirely original, love story about a man and his farming partner,  with Welch on clawhammer banjo:

There was a captain man used to plow and sing
He loved that mule and the mule loved him
When the day got long as it does about now
I’d hear him singing to that muley cow

Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind
Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind
Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind
Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind no more

This is vintage Welch-Rawlings: two voices, two instruments, and words. A perfect demonstration of how powerful those things can be.

—Jack Hunter

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One comment on “Feature review: Gillian Welch, The Harrow and the Harvest

  1. […] I had the pleasure of listening to about two thousand artists this year, most of whom I’d never heard of a year ago. And I end I picked someone I’ve been listening to for fifteen years. I make no apologies for that. This is a beautiful and powerful record that hasn’t left my CD rotation since I first heard it, no matter what else is on my virtual desk. Its highlights are as good as anything in the Welch–Rawlings catalog, which is among the highest praise I can offer an album. [Full Driftwood review.] […]

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