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November Pick of the Month

Time (The Revelator)
Artist: Gillian Welch
Label: Acony Records
Length: 10 Tracks/51:42

On April 14th, Abraham Lincoln "The Great Emancipator" was shot in the head. On the same calendar day, the Titanic sank, and the 'Oakies' fled the Great Dust Bowl storm. 

That's the story of the song "Ruination Day", the 2-part centerpiece to Gillian Welch's new album Time (The Revelator), her third and most ambitious album.  And there's more.  Welch sings about another April 14th, where another monumental tragedy takes place.  Music, hard-wrought and significant, is delivered by hard-working folks, and goes unappreciated.

Time fleshes out a large and complex mural about American musical heroes... pioneers who followed their dreams and found either "ruination" or success. Welch is not celebrating fame or audacity...but passion, the very passion for music that has highlighted her as The Real Thing in an industry fraught with fakes. 

She and her guitar-wielding sidekick David Rawlings are a force to be reckoned with in American music.  Thanks to the Coen Brothers, who have brought them to a larger platform and a brighter spotlight with the soundtrack album to their film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Welch and Rawlings have a chance to sing to the masses with just their voices and their guitars.  And God bless them, they are using this opportunity to draw our attention to our roots. 

No, I don't mean they're a cover band or merely mimicking: Gillian's singing style is all her own, and the stories she tells are uniquely potent.  But it's as though she went back to where "country music" transformed into commercialized pop with a cowboy hat, picked up the broken thread of soulful, artful folk music, and is picking up where those classic artists left off, bringing it into the future. Ironically, "alt-country", the term given to the music of this rising tide of artists like Welch, Steve Earle, and Ryan Adams, has far more in common with country music than the "top 40" country hits on today's charts.

On Welch's previous albums she has reminded us of the heartland gospel sound of the Carter family and the ambition and attitude of a young Emmylou Harris.  Her lyrics are rife with Scriptural references and yet rough and dusty with wounded honesty.  The songs on her first Revival, and the follow-up Hell Among the Yearlings are already being widely covered by other vocalists. 

Time (The Revelator) is also her most personal and groundbreaking work. She still pours her vocals like syrup over her plunking banjo's steadfast strumming.  And Rawlings plucks notes sharp and shiny as new nails, and, in excruciatingly beautiful solos between languid dreamy verses, he pushes at dissonance as long as we can take it and then resolves it with yet another inspired flourish.  Rawlings also produced this record, clearly having learned much from T-Bone Burnett's work on Revival and Hell Among the Yearlings.   But Burnett, perhaps the finest record producer in the world, was focused on the bare-bones songwriting and thus put the spotlight on Welch, holding Rawlings at bay.  Here, though, what is evident at the live shows is far more clear...these two are among the most dynamic duos to ever play the Grande Ole Opry, and Rawlings's musicianship is every bit as important as Welch's songs. You are always aware that you're in a room with two people and two microphones, no special effects, no makeup.  It's refreshing, immediate, and unadorned.  Since anybody can sound good with the right production gloss these days, more and more people are drawn to the thing that can't be mass-produced...raw talent.

Welch's strongest achievement here is the cohesiveness and complexity of her lyrics. Time is practically a concept album, the way songs echo each others' lyrics and themes.  Each song either looks backward or forward in time, seeking the brave, the true, and the real.

Elvis struggles to regain the magic of his youth in his final hours, in "Elvis Presley Blues," desiring to die like that other American legend, John Henry, "with a hammer in his hand." 

In a live track taken from the O Brother concert album Down from the Mountain, Welch and Rawlings drawl "I Want to Sing that Rock and Roll", an anthem that equates the glory of unleashing their musical passions with "shaking their savior's hand".  It's the album's greatest delight.

In "Red Clay Halo," an old-fashioned gospel number that's becoming quite a sing along at their concerts, Welch and Rawlings harmonize about coming to the pearly gates stained with the "red clay" of their earthly struggles, yet another embrace of the dusty authenticity of real work, real sweat, real music. "Now Jordan's banks/they're red and muddy/and the rolling water is wide/But I got no boat/So I'll be good and muddy/when I get to the other side..."

This principle of Time revealing true significance is best demonstrated in the song "My First Lover," when the singer reflects on her first tumble on the floor with a boyfriend.  In her memory, the guy is "rather hazy" now; but that Steve Miller song playing on the record player sticks with her.  The music is the landmark, the monument on the landscape of her past.

The singer tries to "dream a highway" back to Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons, and to a hundred other instances of hard work, tragedy, and transcendent beauty in the album's 15-minute closer, a staggering, trance-inducing finale.  You can imagine the song running from the beginning of time right through to the end of history, music elevating and honoring the integrity of honest heroes.

It's hard to think of an album so full of ambition and goodwill, so respectful. In celebrating "the good stuff", Welch and Rawlings continue to catch the bug of musical greatness; they're writing classics about the classics.  Mining for gold has made them the furthest thing from a flash in the pan. 

Jeffrey Overstreet 9/23/2001


 

Jeffrey Overstreet writes regular reviews, news, and essays on the arts and Christian perspectives at the Looking Closer  web page and in The Crossing, a magazine for Christian artists.  He is also the editor of a weekly column at ChristianityToday.com called Film Forum, and he is a founding member of Promontory Artists Association. You can contact Jeffrey at Promontory@aol.com.

When Gillian Welch chose to title her debut album Revival, she probably didn't expect the name to become a prophecy, but since the release of O Brother Where Art Thou it has become nearly impossible to talk about Gillian without mentioning the platinum selling movie soundtrack which has brought a long marginalized style of music to the attention of the masses. Whether you call Welch's music traditional folk, country, southern music, bluegrass, Americana, or any of the other names fans and critics apply to it, thanks to O Brother…, it is reaching the widest audience it's seen since before commercial-pop-masquerading-as-country began confusing the terms.  Indeed anyone who enjoys the O Brother... soundtrack is likely to appreciate Welch's newest release Time (The Revelator), or either of her previous releases.  What is most remarkable though is that while the majority of songs on the O Brother... soundtrack were written in the first half of the Twentieth Century, Welch now has three albums of original compositions that could easily pass as being from that same era.

Such a statement of course raises questions of whether Welch's music is simply a derivative throwback to early American folk and country, or if it is truly bringing the genre into the present and moving it forward.
Welch, a Berklee College of Music trained daughter of television producers, certainly gets no credibility from her upbringing.  However she came to an appreciation of southern music, it was certainly chosen rather than ingrained.  Not having been raised anywhere near a southern mountain range though seems to make Welch a prime candidate for evolving the genre. On her first two albums Welch proved she had the musical prowess and songwriting skills to become a major force in the old-time folk/country and Americana music scene.  Revival and Hell Among the Yearlings were packed with songs that covered subjects long familiar to southern music --death, bootlegging, coal mining, sin, hell, and redemption to name a few. With Time (The Revelator) though, Welch begins to incorporate twenty-first century subject matter into her songwriting.

With Rock n' Roll making a number of appearances, at least lyrically, on Time (The Revelator), Welch definitively marks her music as coming from, if not the 21st Century, at least the latter half of the 20th.  "My First Lover" relates a woman's unsentimental recollections of her first romantic experience, which largely entails the Steve Miller Band's "Quicksilver Girl" playing in the background; "Elvis Presley Blues" is a deceptively simple meditation on Elvis Presley's life, death, and his similarities to John Henry; the story related in "April The 14th Part I" involves a stoned-looking rock band at a poorly attended gig; and the "F" word even comes out on the opening track, "Revelator", making it clear that this isn't your parent's traditional folk/country.

Lest any long time fans or traditional music purists be concerned, Welch's musical style has evolved little from her earlier releases.  Though the liner notes of the album don't offer any musician credits, nearly all the songs adopt her familiar dual acoustic guitar instrumentation with occasional banjo and/or dobro.  If there is any percussion or other instruments to be found, they are kept in the background.  Indeed there is little need for more instrumentation as Welch and long time collaborator/first-time producer David Rawlings play their guitars with equal parts reckless abandon, precision, and finesse.  With the guitars often playing lead-like melodies underneath the vocals, rather than basic picking or strumming, the effect on songs such as "Revelator," "My First Lover," and "Ruination Day Part 2" is almost that of a duet between the vocals and guitars.  At times the guitars can be a bit too busy and distracting, but for the most part they expertly set the tone for the album's often wistfully sad songs.

It is the simple yet raw "I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll", planted exactly half way through the album, that is at the same time one of the most easily likeable songs in the collection, and the most out of place.
The live performance, borrowed from the Down From the Mountain project--a recording of the multi-artist concert premier of the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack--has clearly not been overly produced or re-mastered for its appearance here.  With audience applause and Welch and Rawlings sounding somewhat distant, the songs break the spell the first half of the album casts with its often somber tone and hauntingly sparse instrumentation.  For some the song may be welcome relief--like a humorous moment following an intense scene in a movie--but for others it will take some of the power away from the album's second half.

While much of the album finds Welch maturing in her songwriting and moving beyond the "Orphan Girl" type characters of her earlier releases, there are still a few throwbacks.  "Red Clay Halo" finds Gillian again putting on the country-girl persona that permeated much of her debut.  It's something she does exceedingly well, and on "Time", where the song is the exception rather than the rule, it makes for an enjoyable exercise in traditional country/bluegrass songwriting.

Few artists today can release an album of all original material that sounds like it may have been compiled by Harry Smith fifty years ago, yet with this latest release, Welch continues to achieve thorough musical
authenticity.  It is the lyrical originality of Time (The Revelator), with its rock and roll references, cursing, and more reflective songwriting, that makes it more than just another tribute to a newly revitalized genre.  Instead of banking on the popularity of O Brother... Welch has delivered an album that has the potential to move the genre forward and establish herself as more than just an old-time music revivalist.

Jason Burton  10/20/2001


 
 
 

 

   
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