Look at these albums as the aural equivalent of a mixed-doubles match.
On one team we have Dave Rawlings, a longtime performance mate of Americana idol Gillian Welch who now leads his own project, with Welch reverting to the support role. On the other is Rosie Flores, the long-proclaimed "rockabilly filly," who returns after a few years as a thoroughly independent act to team with punk vet and alt-country maestro Jon Langford — producer, co-writer, duet partner and even cover artist for her newest album.
For Rawlings and Welch, the new album A Friend of a Friend employs the relaxed folk settings of their concerts as a springboard in terms of performance attitude and repertoire. Initially, the Dave Rawlings Machine was designed as a cover band project that worked in a few original tunes penned for other artists, with instrumental fortification from members of the renegade string band Old Crow Medicine Show.
A Friend of a Friend resurrects a nearly decade-old tune — To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High) — Rawlings co-wrote with Ryan Adams. This version is more of a hoedown with all of the Crow Show in tow. Curiously the song's modestly wistful melody also reveals a slightly Dylan-esque cast.
From the covers corner comes a 10-minute medley of Conor Oberst's Method Acting and an elegiac reading of Neil Young's Cortez the Killer, performed only with Welch.
Rounding out the record's stylistic breadth is Bells of Harlem, one of several newer Rawlings/Welch tunes. It again recalls Dylan, but in his more ambient, Time Out of Mind-era guise.
Flores' Girl of the Century benefits from Langford's pub-style demeanor. But the Pine Valley Cosmonauts largely stay out of the way of Flores' rootsy intimacy. Sure, rockabilly still figures into the fun, especially in the effervescent update of This Little Girl's Gone Rockin', a 1956 hit for Ruth Brown that was written by Bobby Darin, and a raucous, riff-heavy This Cat's in the Doghouse.
But the album shines just as generously as a vintage country affair, whether it's through the 1969 Ernest Tubb/Loretta Lynn hit Who's Gonna Take Your Garbage Out?, with Langford adding a touch of Welsh vitriol to the flames, or the fiddle-driven swing of a newer Paul Burch serenade, Little Bells.
The outside inspirations are no match for Girl of the Century's Flores-written title tune, though. It's a torchy work of dark folk reflection and border-town strings bolstered by a voice that booms clear to the next century and back again.