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4.6 out of 5 stars62
4.6 out of 5 stars
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on 28 June 2011
In these days when artistic lay-offs and comebacks are familiar territory, eight years between albums remains a relatively long time, and suggests an unusual level of perfectionism or writer's block, or both. 2009's Dave Rawlings' Machine album was a patchy affair showcasing the talents of Gillian Welch's long-term musical partner, although Welch herself featured heavily on the album and shared songwriting credits on a handful of the tracks. The Harrow & The Harvest is therefore the first proper offering from Gillian Welch since Soul Journey in 2003, and its title reflects that 'unpleasant place to be' as Welch describes her own struggle to write material that she felt was worthy of recording.

What is most obvious on first hearing is the pared down simplicity of the songs; banjo, harmonica and acoustic guitar being the only instrumentation, used sparingly, but with almost scientific precision. The songs themselves are rooted in the kind of dark and earthy Americana that is clearly deeply embedded in Gillian Welch's soul, despite her often cited New York origins and Californian upbringing. This is music that is stripped back to the bone with no unnecessary embellishments, neither a note nor a phrase, to stand between it and the cool unfussiness of Welch's voice. The best songs like the lovely 'Tennessee', 'Hard Times' and 'Silver Dagger' hint in their very titles at the content within, the latter employing a harmonica break of Dylanesque stature, the others subtly augmented by delicately picked guitar. While such simplicity is undoubtedly the music's avowed intent, and it truly delivers on that promise, it also lends some of the material a curious lifelessness that was missing from Gillian Welch's Revival and Hell Among The Yearlings albums. Repeated listens do indeed reveal additional layers to the music, and this is an album that definitely requires and benefits from attentive and proactive listening to peel back the layers and uncover its full subtlety. But its simplicity is occasionally its undoing, being almost too studied, too contrived to be emotionally engaging, and for me this lack of a sense of involvement, reflected in Welch's detached vocal style, is what makes the album an enjoyable, much admired, but vaguely unsatisfying experience.

Having said all of that, The Harrow & The Harvest knocks spots off anything similar released recently, and is far better than its unnaturally jaunty predecessor. Gillian Welch's personal soul journey into the heart of Americana has clearly reached an altogether different level in the past eight years, one which nevertheless feels right. Those converted already will need no further encouragement to buy, other than the handy CD jewel box insert that doubles as a beer mat. Those new to Gillian Welch may wish to sample Time The Revelator, or the earlier albums, before committing themselves to joining her on this current, more difficult leg of her journey.
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This is much more than the release of an album. The last time that we properly heard from Gillian Welch was eight years ago when Lehman brothers were still in profit and Ryan Giggs was just a mere footballer. Granted she has toured extensively in that time and made appearances on "Friend of a Friend" in 2009 the album by her musical soul mate Dave Rawlings. She also had a large starring role on the Decemberists excellent "King is Dead" this year so 2011 is almost proving hyperactive for this great singer. So let us start by warmly welcoming her back and stating that the "The Harvest and the Harrow" is magnificent and well worth the long wait. Listeners will note immediately that it is an album of relative sparsity in terms of instrumentation, Rawlings presence is musically vital but never overwhelming and Welch herself has moved away from some of the playfulness on "Soul Journey" into a territory, which tends to explore the darker themes of her best album "Time (the revelator)". More than this it harks back to a heartfelt traditionalism which mines something very deep in American music.

"Scarlet town" has the Appalachian ambience of Caleb Mayer and is a great opener with Rawlings accompaniment showing the master musician at his best and a memorable chorus where Welch croons "look at that deep well, look at that dark day". Next up is "Dark turn of mind" a country blues lament that gently rolls along so slowly that you fear it might stop, but is genuinely exquisite. Three songs on the album start with the words "The Way" and the third song will excite those who have longed for the release of the live favourite "Throw me a rope" now renamed "The way it will be". It hints at Neil Young's "On the beach" and is an utter standout. The middle section of the album builds on this tremendous opening and comprises the drug referenced "The way that it goes", the intense six minute plus ruminating dark epic "Tennessee" (perhaps the albums nearest equivalent to "Revelator") and "Down along the Dixie Line" full of references to the deep south and lines drawn from the original civil war anthem "Dixie". In this setting the harmonizing of Welch and Rawlings is memorizing and the way he weaves his guitar lines effortless. Thus when "Six white horses" bounds in with harmonicas and handclaps its almost a full gear change upwards but a delightful one.

The album concludes with "Hard times" which could have been sung the day after the end of the civil war and it would have had resonance for that resolute generation of Americans. The penultimate song "Silver dagger" is possibly the weakest on the album sounding like a reworking of "You are my sunshine" yet other country artists would give their right arm to cover this. Finally the last of the "The Way" trilogy is the aptly named the "The Way the whole thing ends" which could have sound tracked Peter Bogdanovich's stunning black and white portrait of a atrophied West Texas town "The Last Picture Show" as Welch gently laments "that's the way the cornbread crumbles/that the way the whole thing ends". In the last analysis "The Harrow and the Harvest" is deceptively simple album but on deeper listens we discover hidden subtleties and gradations, which Welch and Rawlings have crafted into their best album to date. A warning - this reviewer has no objectivity when it comes to these master musicians but despite this when sheer class of this calibre hits you full force all you can do is hope that we don't have to wait until 2019 for another installment of such virtuosity.
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TOP 50 REVIEWERon 25 August 2011
I loved the soundtrack (and the movie) for O Brother Where Art Thou, so I was quite delighted when I heard a radio program a couple of weeks ago reviewing this cd by Gillian Welch. It has a sound that I really enjoy - I'm not sure how you'd describe the genre - blues, folksy, acoustic? Whatever - it's low technology, musical, beautiful lyrics and wonderful music. Just wonderful singing with banjo, harmonica and guitars. The sort of cd you pop on and sing along to and never get tired of, just like the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack.
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on 5 July 2011
I'll keep it simple. I've always found Gillian Welch to be an artist to watch because, on a few tracks from each album she's released, there will be a moment of absolute arresting beauty that can't be ignored. Even on the tracks I've not been in love with, I have to admire her sensibility and intelligence as a songwriter. I do tend to find her a bit of a "hard sell" to newcomers to her sound on occasions - I guess that sometimes the stripped-back quality of her music that I love can alienate.

This is such a polished, lovely album. I've played it so many times in the last week since I got hold of it, and I'm someone who's partially lost the habit of listening to an album in its entirety since the shuffle laziness/pickiness kicked in. I don't feel the need to pick tracks - it works beautifully, seamlessly together, and I've not been able to honestly say that before (even with Soul Journey, which is Gillian Welch with the corners smoothed down). At the same time as being muscially smoother, The Harrow & The Harvest is lyrically more honest, brave and personal than anything I've heard from her before, which fits beautifully with the intricate arrangements.

It just works so well. If you've enjoyed any of her previous albums, I doubt you'll be disappointed with this offering. One to really savour.
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on 7 July 2011
Eight years is a long time to wait, (thankfully I've had Gillian's other 4 CDs plus loads of videos on YouTube to meet my craving!!), but was the wait worth it? On first listening I wasn't sure, but this one sure grows on you, and the stark simplicity of Gillian's and David's voices with minimal backing of guitar/banjo and occasional harmonica is surely 'pure Welsh'. I'm sure that this CD will become as familiar and addictive as the others (particularly Revival - still my favourite) - "thank you" Gillian and David for this unique offering. All we need now is for you to visit the UK again soon........
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on 26 August 2011
As is often the case, I bought this album after hearing a track on Bob Harris Country, and, as is usually the case, I was not disappointed. This is a beautifully produced record with just two guitars and one voice with not a wasted word or note. To the casual listener there may seem to be little variation in the tempo of the songs, but listen a little closer, and there are melodies within melodies which enhance these tales of human fraility and loss with an honesty that transcends the subject matter.Like most people, I probably have too much music, and too little time to listen to it, but this album has been with me since the day it arrived, and will continue to be for a long time.
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on 2 July 2011
I was prewarned that this first album in 8 years from Gillian was in style the successor to 2001's Time The Revelator, an album which made many music critics "best of the decade" list. What these two records have in common is the magical Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings duet formula. i.e. They write, sing, play together with nobody else required.

So the question for me is whether it's as good as Time The Revelator? That's a tough one. This album is more 'back porch' laid back and some of the songwriting lacks the drama and variety of its predecessor. However, it's all quality from first to last notes, great lyrics and singing and of course wonderful guitar noodling from Dave. Definitely an album I'll be living with for years.
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on 5 July 2011
Writing/recording is clearly a painful process for Gillian but it is to her great credit that she is not willing to record unworthy material. As always with her work it is possible to criticise the uniformity of tone but as that tone is of such stark beauty I'm prepared to tolerate a lack of variety. Despite its mournful quality I still find her work more uplifting than any amount of 'party' music [and I LOVE to party!] because she is dealing in truth. Allied to the spectral harmonies she creates with Dave and Mr Rawlings exquisite playing then you have another fabulous album. Music to play late at night, in a darkened room with a glass of bourbon in your hand.
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on 2 July 2011
There seem to be many people here who can express just how good this record is far better than I'm able, so this is just a quickie recommendation. This is a wonderful and enchanting album, every bit as good as any of her previous work. It's been a long wait but the reward has been worth it. If you're familiar with Ms Welch and love her back catalogue don't hesitate to cough up the dough, you will not be disappointed
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on 6 September 2011
It took eight years, but it was well worth the wait. Scarlet Town is probably the best opener of any of the records; and this album is my favourite of 2011. Essential.
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