Dusted Reviews

Gillian Welch - The Harrow & The Harvest

today features
reviews charts
labels writers
info donate

Search by Artist

Sign up here to receive weekly updates from Dusted

email address

Recent Reviews

Dusted Reviews

Artist: Gillian Welch

Album: The Harrow & The Harvest

Label: Acony

Review date: Jun. 27, 2011

Hear The Entire Album At NPR Music

It’s been eight years since the last Gillian Welch record. Not so long, maybe, for the singer whose Time (The Revelator) made the Lincoln assassination, the sinking of the Titanic, and Elvis shaking his hips on TV feel like part of a single, collective exhalation. Long enough, however, for expectations to grow unwieldy. Nobody sequences a record because of the one they plan to make next, but I’d hoped that Welch and partner David Rawlings would move in the direction of “Wrecking Ball,” the electric closer to Soul Journey. The pair has elegantly explored American folk forms over the course of four records; “Wrecking Ball,” with its earthquakes, LSD, and tentative steps towards demolition of form, seemed like a promising place to pivot. But The Harrow & The Harvest does not make this or any other transition. In fact it’s retrograde, more reminiscent of the first two Welch records (Revival, Hell Among the Yearlings) than either the majestic sweep of Time (The Revelator) or the more relaxed full-band sound of Soul Journey.

If the title of the record refers to eight years of steady cultivation, the other meaning of harrow—torment, vex—is also at work here. These songs are bleak; if Soul Journey had the sweet-sharp flavor of “peaches in the summertime / apples in the fall,” here it’s “beefsteak when I’m working / whiskey when I’m dry” (“Tennessee”). The opener “Scarlet Town” blows like a cold wind (“The things I seen in Scarlet Town did mortify my soul”), with Rawlings’ urgent, wandering pick plucking both at guitar strings and the nape. The pair travels through “Tennessee” and “Down Along the Dixie Line,” but the mood rarely changes.

Few musicians are capable of wringing more beauty from two voices and a single guitar, but the music that Welch and Rawlings makes can sometimes feel mannered. The patterned dresses and Opry suits are always newly dry-cleaned, which can make it hard to find the red clay hiding under nails and collar. Nashville has a long tradition of this sort of thing, of course, though the Welch and Rawlings sheen is less about “made good” than “well made.” Unlike the earlier records, however, The Harrow & The Harvest too often relies on “well made” as its governing virtue. The jazzy “Dark Turn of Mind” is elegantly executed, yet it twinkles to a standstill. Meanwhile, “The Way it Goes” can’t decide whether it wants to boogie or bail. Can excessive harrowing leach nutrients out of the soil? Welch sounds bored as she narrates the downfall of characters that fail to ever come to life in the first place (“Peggy Johnson bought the farm, put a needle in her arm / That’s the way that it goes, that’s the way”).

It’s hard to say what distinguishes the tracks that work — some gorgeously — except that none sound like they’ve been worked to death over the course of eight years. “The Way it Will Be” is a longtime live staple, but the way that Rawlings’ guitar tiptoes so tentatively around the barely-there harmony (“I lost you a while ago / Still I don’t know why”) creates an effect of devastated discovery. “Six White Horses” uses harmonica and rudimentary percussive slaps to cut through the settling haze, while “Hard Times (Ain’t Gonna Rule My Mind)” finds Welch singing with gentle heft over prickly banjo in one of the record’s clarion moments.

Even if it fails to meet impossibly high expectations, The Harrow & The Harvest offers a handful of keepers while moving Welch and Rawlings (hopefully) past their writers’ block. Nevertheless, you can hear in these songs that this crop required backbreaking work to deliver. Here’s hoping that next time they drop the harrow and go gather some of the wild stuff growing by the creek.

By Nathan Hogan

Read More

View all articles by Nathan Hogan

Find out more about Acony

©2002-2011 Dusted Magazine. All Rights Reserved.