Gillian Welch – The Harrow and the Harvest

Gillian Welch is a person, but also a duo, they are Gillian and husband Dave Rawlings, although they aren’t actually married, who occasionally record as Dave as well. Clear? Good, then I’ll continue. This is their 5th album as Gillian Welch and the first to be release on vinyl, and what a release. There are many people who say vinyl is best others who disagree and sometimes either can be right, but in this case the vinyl is perfect. There are a number of reason for this, firstly the music lends itself to the format as it is limited in instrumentation and there is no requirement for many overdubs. Secondly, it was recorded using old analogue equipment, which again lends itself to the format. When I say old analogue this is from the microphone to the amps to the desk to the tape, proper old school, and it shows. My ears are not as good as they used to be but I can still hear the difference.

I’ve mentioned before about a Billy Holiday album I have that was recorded in the 50’s, it sounds amazing, as though we are in the same room, The Harrow and the Harvest has the same feel about it. Another nice touch, for the CD version at least, was that the covers where letter pressed, which is something I’ve tried my hand at (it’s difficult) and individually coffee stained to give them an aged look. It’s small touches like this that makes this album special throughout. That and they released it on their own Acony record label.

I saw them at Warwick Arts Centre on the tour promoting this album and it was captivating, so engrossed was I that it came as a complete surprise to me when it ended as I had lost track of time. Just two people with guitars, no light show, no pyrotechnics and it was amazing. That’s the set list from the night above.

Now I fully understand that a lot of people are turned off at the mere suggestion of Country music, and while you could throw this album into that category I find it sits better in Americana. These are pretty dark songs, not about pick up trucks and other country tropes, they are often delicate and have a seam of sadness running through them, they are beautifully constructed and performed.

I have to share this about Dave Rawlings guitar playing,

Rawlings achieves his signature guitar sound flatpicking a small archtop guitar. The 1935 Epiphone Olympic that has been his primary instrument was a mid-priced guitar for its time, with a carved arched solid sprucewood top, carved arched solid mahogany back and mahogany sides. It sold for about $35 in 1935. The guitar’s lower bout measures 13 5/8 inches wide, and it has three piece f-holes.[

Rawlings “scavenged” the guitar from a friend’s attic and is now hardly seen playing anything else. As he states, “I just picked it up. It was filthy, and it didn’t have strings. You could just see the shape of it under the sawdust.” Rawlings tuned it and brought it to a recording session for the Welch’s first record. “As soon as I heard it through the microphone and through the speakers I was like, ‘I love this guitar.'” he says.

The New Yorker‘s Wilkinson described Rawlings as a “strikingly inventive guitarist” who plays solos that are “daring melodic leaps”. A review in No Depression by Andy Moore observed that Rawlings “squeezes, strokes, chokes and does just about everything but blow into” his guitar. He’s not flashy, but he is an extraordinarily emotive guitar player.

A1Scarlet Town
A2Dark Turn Of Mind
A3The Way It Will Be
A4The Way It Goes
B1Down Along The Dixie Line
B2Six White Horses
B3Hard Times
B4Silver Dagger
B5The Way The Whole Thing Ends

When Welch’s first two albums came out, critics questioned the authenticity of her music, having grown up in Southern California but performing Appalachian themed songs.  This is, of course, complete crap and The Wall Street Journal’s Taylor Holliday said it best: “Stingy critics give Ms. Welch a hard time because she’s a California city girl, not an Appalachian coal miner’s daughter. But as Lucinda or Emmylou might attest, love of the music is not a birthright, but an earned right. Listen to Ms. Welch yodel, in a tune about that no-good “gal” Morphine, and you know she’s as mountain as they come.

It’s been 8 years since this was released and it is high time that a new album was released, which could include a new track for which they received an Oscar nomination. They lost out to a song from ‘A Star Is Born’ which, in my opinion is rather formulaic, but even being nominated is pretty damn good. The song is the theme to the Coen Brothers’ Western anthology The Ballad of Busters Scruggs, the song soundtracks a pivotal gun battle between Tim Blake Nelson’s titular gunfighter and the upstart “The Kid,” played by former Old Crow Medicine Show member Willie Watson. Nelson’s character tragically loses, and he and “The Kid” duet on the song as Scruggs is lifted into heaven. Welch and Rawlings recently released their own version of “When a Cowboy Trades His Spurs for Wings” earlier this month. The video is their understated but wonderful performance at the Oscars ceremony.

I think it pretty obvious by now that I highly recommend this and all their albums. There’s something very endearing about them and they connect brilliantly with their audience, like below on a Neil Young cover:

I’ve included below an hour long concert for the BBC performed at St Lukes in London, because it is quite brilliant.

Finally, a Radiohead cover, that’s right, Radiohead. Heaven.

Rating: 9.4

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