Ending an eight-year recording break that set in soon after Gillian Welch's profile-boosting appearance in O Brother, Where Art thou?, The Harrow and the Harvest marks a lovely return.
Simplicity is often the hardest thing to achieve, and it's a challenge this wistful singer-songwriter has always embraced. In fact, her 2011 album revisits the austerity of the Grammy-nominated, horribly-titled Time (The Revelator) after a rare outburst of optimism and full-band arrangements on 2003's Soul Journey.
It's no bread-and-water diet, though. Welch's partner and producer David Rawlings conjures a rich soundscape with just acoustic guitars and voices, and as her fingerpicking accompanist he weaves a delicate melodic tracery through the melancholy. This is not music for listeners in a hurry; there's so much space among the notes that the silence between songs feels like part of the languid performance.
Americana has probably given too much leeway to peddlers of front-porch nostalgia, and Welch's Los Angeles background has sometimes been cited to prove her inauthenticity. Still, The Harrow & The Harvest sounds like an excellent argument for faking your way to truth and beauty.
Its world is the mythical folksong past where you'll hear a man talk to his mule, watch the cornbread crumbling, feel the wind through the pines. There's a hint of backwoods holler in Welch's keening alto, too. But this is not real traditionalism. For every "fare ye well my own true love" there's an echo of CSN&Y, or even early Elton John.
And if there's a case to be made for formulating something serious out of classic pop and old-time hokum, Welch and Rawlings make it as well as anybody. So while just a bit of drums and bass would probably have broadened the record's appeal, we must give thanks for this stubborn duo's independence of mind. After all, it's the quiet ones that get you in the end.
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Gillian Welch is an uncompromising musical renegade with four critically acclaimed albums and a Grammy Award under her belt. Writing and performing with her longtime partner, David Rawlings, they present their haunting songs like rock and roll chamber music, with two acoustic guitars and two voices welded together. Their tunes have been covered by such American legends as Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, and Solomon Burke. Their music defies easy categorization -- it embraces, and is in turn embraced by, the pre-eminent ambassadors of folk, bluegrass, R & B, punk, and rock and roll. Gillian Welch's previous releases are Revival, Hell Among The Yearlings, Time (The Revelator) and Soul Journey.