This is long overdue. David Rawlings has for many years been the partner of the great Gillian Welch and her secret weapon. He has had the grace to stand in the background as Welch's career has taken off despite the fact they are essentially a duo and that Rawlings writes great songs. Watch both on You Tube doing a majestic version of "Time the revelator". Every note counts and it is a pure melody stripped of all excess. You must hear it. As it stands neither Welch nor Rawlings is complaining at there current arrangement with the sheer beauty of the music showcasing two of the greatest musicians and songwriters in contemporary American music. That Rawlings has now produced a solo album albeit with a band of red hot backing musicians (the machine )is interesting because in effect Welsh sings on nearly every song here and what we have is a formal reversal of roles. Rawlings of course has considerable pedigree in his own right. This is a man who writes songs with Welch, Ryan Adams and the Old Medicine Crow Show and is a brilliant musician to boot assisting Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes on a number of recordings. I was genuinely excited at the prospect of "A friend of a Friend" and it does not disappoint.
The word "class" is over used but that's what this is. "Ruby" draws on that giant of country rock Gram Parsons and is a brilliant opener. It's followed by the great Rawlings/Ryan Adams song which opens the latters masterpiece "Heartbreaker" namely "To be young (is to be sad is to be high"). Adams version starts off with a jokey conversation with Rawlings about a Morrissey song. This version however is much more of a country hoedown but with none of the bittersweet lyrics lost of the song diluted. An excellent start. "I hear them all" is Dylan like in his darkness and sparsity, it is simple and lovely . It is followed by the albums highlight. This sees a coupling of Conor Oberst's "Method Acting" with Neil Young's classic "Cortez the Killer". Rawlings and Welch are brilliant at pairing up songs. I have for example heard them do a version of Dylan's "Queen Jane Approximately" to Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun!" The coupling of Method Acting and Cortez the Killer works wonderfully and is stunning. When Rawlings sings the following lines he means every bit of it -
"I've sat too long in my silence
I've grown too old in my pain
To shed this skin, be born again, it starts with an ending"
It segues brilliantly into Cortez the Killer one of Youngs greatest songs. It is intensely moving and is the best song that Rawlings and Welch have done since "Time the relevator". The rest of the album unsurprisingly never quite hits this peak but is solid country/bluegrass rock throughout, indeed very much like a a Welch album but with Ralwings out front. "Monkey and the engineer" is a Jesse Fuller song which has been covered in the past by the Grateful Dead. It's the sort of stuff Welch and Rawlings can do in their sleep and I would have liked to heard something more challenging. That said I particularly like the Hank Williams sound-alike "How about you" and the gentle "Bells of Harlem" to finish. I readily accept that when it comes to this pair I'm biased. They could blow into a kazoo as far as I am concerned and produce a stellar effort. This is nonetheless top notch and I hope that Welch fans in particular dont just see this as a tremendous consolation prize until her long awaited next album (6 years?) but as a excellent solo album in its own right that sees a great and under appreciated musician emerging at last from the shadows.