With nearly a decade passing since Gillian Welch’s last recording it seemed she may be retiring from producing her own original material entirely. There were musical guest appearances here and there, with Bright Eyes and the Decemberists, odd Stateside shows and most recently a tour alongside partner David Rawlings and bluegrass band Old Crow Medicine Show in support of the project Dave Rawlings Machine.
It felt concerning to avid listeners that even these live shows, which gained Welch’s vocal and guitar input, were devoid of any of her own material, making it seem she had retired from this business altogether. However with the release of this year’s The Harrow and the Harvest she has reflected that it was in touring on an entirely different project which broke down the pigeon-holing name herself and Rawlings employed, allowing them to rework a number of songs by traditional and contemporary artists, which perhaps served to inspire them in their own more personal, creative realms. From this full band experience a route back to the duo’s more personal and intimate Appalachian roots folk was finally retrodden and rediscovered in turn.
Turns out nothing much had inspired them, something Welch stated was less of being stuck in a rut – a creativity block – but more as a result of a certain dissatisfaction with what they had produced.
As albums go The Harrow and the Harvest sheds the anonymity commonplace in earlier works; this time becoming about them and the tales they wish to tell. “I look at that deep well, look at the dark rain” Welch sings in album opener ‘Scarlet Town‘, a twinkling travelling song, still harboring much of the darkness of her old material. It’s a macabre style of folk which her work is so well defined by: there are constant recurring images of crows, ropes, notions of returning back, coming home. Much of the songs comprising this fifth LP from Welch and partner and musical collaborator Rawlings were written on cross country road trips – only one track ‘The Way it Will Be‘ remained unchanged from the drawing board of songs composed between Soul Journey back in 2003 and the present, and too; much of the tapestry of stunning guitar work from Rawlings is familiar as slightly altered from elder melodies.
As far as harmonies go they crop up in every song, but hushed and calming despite the often dower topics: “I’ve never been served anything that tasted so bad” they sing in ‘The Way it Will Be‘, as if it were the purest of nectars so malleable are their vocals with one another. The delivery is matter of fact, but never devoid of emotion, ‘The Way it Goes‘ deals with heroin addiction and death, but cocooned in the intricate guitars of Rawlings becomes a timeless tale of friendship and life even in reflection of wrong turns and misgivings. With banjo on ‘Hard Times‘ we find one of Welch’s best works, a simple message of music as redemptive.
‘Six White Horses‘ picks up with pace with a thigh slapping intensity that breaks up the slow unravelling of the yarns spun, and perhaps due to this fact finds itself at the heart of the album. And while the pace of The Harrow and the Harvest may be ponderous and patient, it recalls a return to greatness from the duo, this album reads like her debut Revival, like a classic folk album and like the new praise worthy collection of songs it is – three in one.
Review by Melanie McGovern
The Album Cover Story
When I got the CD I wasn’t aware of the work that went into the hand letter-pressed album cover. The video below gives the background to it, whilst this was a really nice touch it did mean that there was no room for any other inset as the card had to be a certain thickness to accomodate the letter-pressing technique, so you won’t find any lyrics or photowork inside, a daring move.