Gillian Welch The Harrow & The Harvest (5*)

Sunday, 16 September 2012

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It doesn't take long to realise that we've got an operation here that's quite happy to take its time. There's an unhurried feel to The Harrow & The Harvest that leaves you (or at least me) unsurprised when you learn it had been eight years between this album and her previous offering, Soul Journey.

Much of the delay, as it turns out, was due to an inability to come up with something they thought was good enough to persevere with. News that there are musicians out there with perfectionist streaks hardly comes as earth-shattering news, but Gillian Welch and long-time partner Dave Rawlings seem to have the obsessive bit to a greater degree than most.

It's not as if there's a whole lot you can do with a couple of voices and guitars, which is basically what's on offer here. Starkly intricate vocal harmonies, decidedly minimalist instrumentation centred around Rawlings’ 1935 Epiphone Olympic guitar and Welch’s 1956 Gibson J-50 or banjo. That’s not the sort of detail that usually attracts my attention, but in this case it seems appropriate.

Most tracks are first or second takes and the sound has the same sense of timelessness I've associated with The Band or, in what might be a better comparison, Richard and Linda Thompson, a set of original material that sounds like it’s drawn from folk manuscripts handed down across the ages.

That’s obvious from the earliest notes and the first verse of Scarlet Town and continues through Dark Turn of Mind and The Way It Will Be, mysterious and fatalistic musings on the singer’s situation and the gloomy prospects for the future, wrapped up in a simple vocal package with understated vocal harmonies.

There’s a slightly more contemporary feel toThe Way It Goes (Betsy Johnson bought the farm, stuck a needle in her arm, that's the way that it goes) and Tennessee, but that’s in the lyrical department. In terms of vocals and instrumentation these two tracks are stuck as firmly in timeless territory as those that preceded them, though there are contemporary references (sweet heroin), and we’re there again for Down Along the Dixie Line.

After that, with banjo, harmonica and knee-slapping percussion added to the mix, Six White Horses comes as a slightly upbeat version of the vision, but a careful listen to the lyrics reveals we’re still looking at a landscape where struggle, despair, human frailty and fear of the unknown rule the roost. That landscape persists through Hard Times and Silver Dagger and by the time we’ve reached The Way the Whole Thing Ends we’ve spent a little over three-quarters of an hour in a sepia tinted environment that’s sonically charming but chronicles some disturbing off-camera incidents beneath a rather gorgeous surface.

Tales from the dark side of the tracks fit seamlessly into a stark, understated delivery that combines crystal clear sonics with a stark beauty in delivery and results in a listening experience that’s richly textured, combining traditional themes and a mindset that sits firmly in the twenty-first century but still echoes the fading past.

File under: Remarkable achievements and start heading back for an overdue investigation of the back catalogue.

© Ian Hughes 2012