Gillian Welch - The Harrow & The Harvest
by Donny Kutzbach
The Harrow & The Harvest
Some things just take time. It’s been eight years since Gillian Welch last issued a record. 2004’s Soul Journey was another highwater mark for the Nashville-based singer/songwriter, following a string of acclaimed releases and a Grammy. Along with her partner and musical collaborator, guitarist extraordinaire David Rawlings, Welch has made a trade out of exquisitely crafted, evocative, jaw-droppingly raw and powerful American roots and traditional folk/country music.
In recent interviews, Welch says that writer’s block is to blame for the long gestation of new material. She says that she and Rawlings were never pleased with the music she was writing. The resulting strife and turmoil of the pair’s struggle with creative draught ironically made the perfect fuel for The Harrow & The Harvest. In many ways, this concise, 10-track affair might be considered Welch’s most cohesive collection to date. While it is a faultless fit with the rest of Welch’s catalog, it also stands alone as work more stripped and austere than the rest. While Welch’s past records have collaged tracks of just the spare duo alongside ones with a fuller band including rhythm section (particularly on Soul Journey), this time Welch has pared it back to nothing but the absolute basics. There is little on this record outside of Welch’s and Rawlings’ voices accompanied by guitar and a few stringed instruments, though even those are used sparingly. This is the truest case of “less is more.” What is left out leaves more room for the songs to show off their quality, layers, and details.
Every track across The Harrow & The Harvest is littered with first-person tales of long-gone castaways, troubled minds, and burdened ghosts from the past. Starting off with the intricate mountain ballad “Scarlett Town,” Welch’s tempered alto conjures up spirits of Appalachia, wrapped in Rawlings sinewy guitar lines and backing vocals. “Dark Turn of Mind” is an eloquent, grim sort of love song with shadows of rape and regret, which bears some Beatles-esque chord changes and melodic touches. Singing lines like “Banjos is strumming/Horseflies are humming/Ripe melons on the vine” as she does on “Down Along the Dixie Line,” Welch’s gift for balancing the economic and the evocative rises to the surface in a times-gone-by lament that comes through the speakers so real you can really hear it, smell it, and feel it. The vox-and-banjo-only beauty “Hard Times” stuns with tight harmonies. “Silver Dagger,” complete with harmonica solo, offers echoes of the Carter Family crossed with the deftness of Dylan’s storytelling.
The great part of the Gillian Welch mystique is her ability to make modern music that harks back to something that sounds so deep in the past, pulled back from decades if not centuries. But yes: modern. The Harrow & The Harvest doesn’t sound like some roug-hewn field recordings taken from John Lomax’s tape recorder or a dusty shellac 78 from Harry Smith’s shelves. The years in between prove not only rich in terms of songwriting but also in terms of the recording and arranging, as the self-producing duo of Welch and Rawlings painstakingly pull off a sonically impeccable, immaculate-sounding album.
The long space between records and the unwavering, organic quality of The Harrow & The Harvest doesn’t so much signal that Welch and Rawlings are obsessives or perfectionists but instead perhaps patient artisans who are willing to wait until everything falls into to place. If one believes in self-fulfilling prophecy, this could be called a case of time as the revelator for Welch.
—donny kutzbachblog comments powered by Disqus
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