The Phantom Tollbooth
January 1999 Pick of the month

Hell Among the Yearlings
Artist: Gillian Welch
Label: ALM Sounds
Length: 11 tracks/39:02 minutes

It's interesting that, at the crest of Lilith Fair-mania, while female rockers tend to dwell on their own importance and out-maneuver each other with ego and innovation, two of the strongest recordings of the year* (see footnote) feature women that dig deep into traditional country, folk, and blues.

Gillian Welch's Hell Among the Yearlings is an album built to last. This is her second album produced by T-Bone Burnett (in this writer's opinion, the best producer in the music business),  and it is darker and bolder than her debut Revival. Welch's sound is classic Americana, a  front-porch Tennnessee-mountain style, and as a result her stories echo with history. It's almost as though by stirring up these echoes of folktales, she's summoned a host of ghosts.

She sets the tone with "Caleb Meyer," a tense violent tale from the perspective of a woman defending herself from an would-be rapist. "The Devil Had a Hold On Me" is a chilling testimony of a restless country girl that fails to resist the 'dark side of the force,' if you will. "One Morning" gives a brief glimpse of a woman waking to a bloody revelation in a stark alternative to scenes from Little House on the Prairie America. And "My Morphine," the album's most graceful and beautiful track (which Gillian jokes is the "slowest yodel song" ever) is a haunting song of a morphine-addict couched in the conventions of a doomed love affair. You'll be horrified even as you find yourself swaying to these gentle melodies.

Welch's songs are stories of loneliness, despair, and misfortune that will resonate with anyone who has "been there." And yet, as she did on Revival, she's not bent on scaring and depressing her audience. For every dark cloud here, there is a glimmer of gospel, of hope in the hereafter. In this package, "I'm Not Afraid to Die" and "Rock of Ages" offer the kind of spiritual affirmation that will carry a soul through the darkness. She sings about the faithfulness of the gospels and the prophets--"Matthew Mark Luke and John, they're gone but not forgotten," and she goes on to declare "Wanna see the rock of ages/When my body gives out/ gonna read them final pages...." Some folk singers might sing these songs as a mere nod to the tradition of gospel, but there's sincerity in Welch's heartfelt delivery.

Through acquaintance with darkness and the downtrodden, with the gospel hope in hand, Gillian Welch can find the beautiful in the mundane. "Whiskey Girl," which sounds curiously like an old Neil Young ballad, finds a richly textured world among the late-night bar dwellers where the neon lights are the sun in the sky; T-Bone's distorted Hammond organ tones casts a shadow over the song, a suggestion of repressed nightmares a la David Lynch.

While most female vocalists fight it out for the title of best-selling female pop star or most shockingly obnoxious female rock star, Gillian Welch stands out as the alternative. It doesn't hurt that her partner is David Rawlings, a young guitarist with a flair for bluegrass from speedy pickin' numbers to lazy improvisational solos. (On-stage these songs are even stronger. If Welch and Rawlings come to your town, don't miss them.) They're a formidable team, with weapons strong enough to be effective by virtue of their history.

Ironically, "cutting edge" may soon come to suggest "tried and true."

**Two OTHER significant female-vocalist recordings of this year--recordings of such quality and craftsmanship that they will still be playing several years down the road--are Lucinda Williams's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road and Emmylou Harris's live recording Spyboy.

Jeffrey Overstreet writes regular reviews, news, and essays on the arts and Christian perspectives at the Green Lake Reflections web page  and in The Crossing, a magazine for Christian artists.  He has been published in Christianity and the Arts Magazine, The New Christian Herald, and AngliCan Arts Magazine, and he is a founding member of Promontory Artists Association.  You can contact Jeffrey at Promontory@aol.com.  (12/17/98)