The Harrow & the Harvest
For her first record in eight years, Gillian Welch and her partner David Rawlings put on a master class in Appalachia-tinged folk music songwriting and performing. These two remarkable musicians have created a ten-song collection worth treasuring. The Harrow & the Harvest is full of marvelous contradictions. It’s a spare, deceptively simple record that yields new complexities with every listen. The characters that haunt these songs are often doomed by circumstances or undone by their own humanity. But in Welch and Rawlings’ hands, their stories are often oddly life-affirming. These may be some of the saddest songs whose every word you’ll want to learn and sing along with. Though the slow motion feel of many of the songs makes this a Sunday afternoon record, for sure, the overall effect is as exhilarating as anything you could listen to while getting pumped up to go out on a Saturday night. And though Welch and Rawlings reportedly labored over the album during the past eight years, trying hard to get just the right songs, the finished product sounds anything but. Instead it comes off as astonishingly easy and self-assured and as if the songs have already existed for a lifetime.
After a record (2003’s Soul Journey) on which (gasp!) drums and electric guitars figured prominently on several tracks, Welch and Rawlings here return to the sound of 2001’s dark masterpiece Time (The Revelator) and earlier recordings. Two voices, two acoustic guitars (sometimes a banjo), the occasional harmonica and a few knee slaps. That’s the instrumentation here. But that is all this pair needs to weave their spell.
Welch and Rawlings’ guitars and voices intertwine in mesmerizing ways on the opening “Scarlet Town.” In performance and on record, Welch and Rawlings have always been a symbiotic and simpatico duo, but that has never been more true than on The Harrow & the Harvest. You can hear a breathtaking stillness and ache in “Dark Turn of Mind,” a torchy ballad that Norah Jones would kill for. A beautiful melody and Rawlings’ harmonies highlight “The Way It Will Be,” the first of three songs with “The Way… ” in the title. “The Way That It Goes” is perhaps the catchiest song here, with Welch rifling off colorful character sketches and cool lines.
“Aunt Miranda ran away / Took her cat and left L.A. / That’s the way that it goes, that’s the way / She was busted, broke and flat / Had to sell that pussycat / That’s the way that it goes, that’s the way,” she sings.
The six-and-a-half-minute “Tennessee” is the record’s true centerpiece, with Welch showing a keen eye for character detail.
“I kissed you ’cause I’ve never been an angel / I learned to say hosannas on my knees / But they threw me out of Sunday school when I was nine / And the Sisters said I did just as I pleased,” she sings.
Even as the character in the song tries to be a good girl, she realizes she is her own worst enemy and she’ll inevitably surrender to trouble in the form of a man who pressed his whiskers to her cheek.
“Now I tried drinking rye and gambling / Dancing with damnation is a ball / But of all the little ways I’ve found to hurt myself / You might be my favorite one of all.”
The album’s second half is highlighted by the evocative, almost defiant, banjo-led “Hard Times.” “Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind no more,” Welch sings. And the third part of the trilogy, “The Way the Whole Thing Ends,” goes out with Welch and Rawlings’ intertwining guitars coming to a rest. “That’s the way the cornbread crumbles / That’s the way the whole thing ends,” she sings.
The Harrow & the Harvest is a thrilling record showcasing two songwriters and performers at the top of their game. In today’s era of auto-tuned to death, compressed, high energy dance pop, it is a true breath of fresh air and an invitation to sit a spell and witness the magic. The sound is two immensely talented musicians playing unadorned, well-written songs in your living room and absolutely killing it. Who could ask for anything more?
Gillian Welch: www.gillianwelch.com