Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Gillian Welch - The Harrow and the Harvest

I got to thinking about the previous albums and songs that I’ve been writing about. Most of them are rooted in rock and roll history – which confessedly is a blip on the radar in terms of overall music history. I’ve only tackled one album and one song that crossed into the 21st century. With that in mind, I’ve decided to get contemporary and write about my favourite album of 2011 thus far. The problem with that is….well, thw music sounds more old timey than anything else I’ve written about.
Yes folks, I’m referring to the new album by the duo of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings called “The Harrow And The Harvest”. As a side note, I once heard Gillian Welch say that her albums are not released in her name as a solo act. She’s in a “band” with David Rawlings and the band just happens to be called Gillian Welch. I’ll return to this point soon.
For an artist that’s not on the mainstream media radar, there appeared to have been a fair amount of interest (at least from where I see it) in the lead-up to the release of the album. Notwithstanding the album she and David did in his name “A Friend of a Friend”, it’s been 8 years since the release of her last long-player, “Soul Journey”. Does this album live up to the high expectations? In summary….yep, and then some.

Gillian Welch (the individual or the band - take your pick) has always provided light and dark in her songs. For instance, Orphan Girl (a song I first heard beautifully covered by Emmylou Harris) with its gospel tinge, takes a subject that would be milked for all tragedy by other artists or in other genres. From the pen of Welch it combines slight sadness but with faith and the hope that when the time comes, she'll meet her family again at God's table. Like Judee Sill before her, she can write a song of faith without alienating those who don't necessarily share that faith.

The name of the new album The Harrow and The Harvest implies duality - joy and sadness, hope and resignation. Indeed, a number of these songs deliver on that premise.

In The Way It Goes, the singer is recalling the fate of friends, presumably from her youth - financial hardship, drugs, death. Everyone goes their own way and friendships go missing in action. Instead of grieving over the tragedies, the singer is resigned to their and our fate ("Still there was a time when all of us were friends"). The music may be old timey, but the lyrics unfortunately deal with a timeless subject. The song reminds me of "Needle and Thread" by Richard Thompson. Unlike Gillian's protagonist, Richard won't just be resigned to his characters' fate - he needs to "sew his soul back together again".

The Way The Whole Thing Ends takes a slightly different approach to life events. Gillian's character chastises a former friend for not sticking to the ideals they'd originally lived by. When deserting the ideals doesn't lead to the success they hoped for, Gillian unsympathetically tells her character tough luck - "that's the way the cornbread crumbles".

Now once you had a hook and ladder / Up into the headless night / And once you had a motorcycle /
But you couldn't ride it right / Standing in the doorway crying / Now you're gonna need a friend
That's the way the cornbread crumbles / That's the way the whole thing ends

Gillian's former friend is hoping for forgiveness but instead gets disdain. Maybe the album should be called The Harvest and The Harrow. Another song with a good argument for that name reversal is Hard Times. The song starts off with a man who ploughs his land,has a donkey to help him, and is happy enough with his lot to not let "hard times rule my mind". Of course, being a country song, a positive ending is not how this cornbread crumbles. By song's end,he's a shambolic figure that's didn't realise hard times didn't care for his mind - just his life and circumstances.

It's not completely clear to me if Scarlet Town is a murder ballad, but the character is certainly singing from the grave to a former lover who promised her the earth, but left her to rot in it. He should watch his back though because she's "looking through a telescope from hell to Scarlet Town". He thinks he's lived his harvest, but hell hath no fury like a lover wanting to impose harrow - or something like that.

I haven't even cited the album's highlight yet - Tennessee. The song is about self-destruction. The protagonist has spent her life trying to live well and be "apple pie", but loses out to temptaion every time. "I had no desire to be child of sin / Then you went and pressed your whiskers to my cheek". There's that theme of duality again.

To this point I've spent more time talking about the lyrical themes on this record (now I'm really getting old timey) than the music. As per usual, Gillian and David's melodies and arrangements are haunting and beautiful. There is not a note out of place and there is not a superfluous note anywhere on this album. As I think it's been stated before, David Rawlings is a master of the understated guitar performance. The band Gillian Welch live to serve the songs and stories they tell about in gorgeous close harmony. They are so locked in sync that Gillian's statement about the two of them being a band (that just happens to be called Gillian Welch) is no whimsy.

These songs are indeed about hard times and the characters in the songs face sad circumstances (is that a female version of Dexter in Dark Turn of Mind?) Yet, after multiple playings of this great album in the short time it's been available, I've never felt anything less than exhilirated from the haunting beauty of these melodies and their scary lyrics. These characters face harrow, but my enjoyment of these songs is the harvest.

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