Gillian Welch and David Rawlings
The Harrow and the Harvest (Acony)
Gillian Welch has a bit of Emmeline Grangerford in her—you know, the somber teenage girl from Huckleberry Finn who hurries off to scribble a wordy, morbid ode anytime anyone dies. Early in her career, Welch's image was as studiously dour and retro as her songs and music were, full of soldier's joys and orphan girls. On her more recent albums, she has deigned to notice the 20th century, even dallying with a trap set on 2003's Soul Journey, her last studio album. There are still hints of Emmeline on the new The Harrow and the Harvest, from that title on down to references to mules and "beefsteak" and a "childhood [spent] walking the wildwood/Down along the Dixie line." But the new disc nonetheless continues her rapprochement with the present day, and often in most appealing ways. Really.
The Harrow and the Harvest's success is rooted in Welch's retrenchment to the basics of twinned acoustic instruments and harmony vocals with co-billed musical/life partner David Rawlings. Whatever she's singing about, it sounds best in that durable, flexible, daresay soulful setting. And some of her tunes shed at least part of their throwback vibe. The lulling "Dark Turn of Mind" turns the clear and simple virtues of classic country/folk songwriting into an ode to women of the title mindset, who could always use more good songs (the dark-turning melody of "Tennessee," a few cuts later, is another).
On "The Way That It Goes," on the other hand, Welch turns sardonic, unspooling a cornpone "People Who Died" and cracking that one woman who flew too high wound up "busted, broke and flat/Had to sell that pussy cat." Gillian Welch makes a pussy joke! Elsewhere, she splits the difference between vintage forms and a more contemporary approach, leading to songs, like "Silver Dagger," which blur eras, as well as songs like the banjo-harmonica-and-handclap-driven "Six White Horses," which transcend them.
The truth is, such are Welch's gifts as a singer and songwriter that she can get away with a lot, even among those resistant to po-faced hillbilly romanticism. Taken line by line, "Hard Times" sounds like some sort of Great Depression ballad. But when she hits the chorus of "hard times ain't gonna rule my mind," it's hard not to wanna sing along.