Gillian Welch is the sort of folk traditionalist who can fashion tunes liberally from past traditions, be they ages-old Appalachian spirits or even more rustic temperaments that stretch across centuries and oceans to their decidedly British roots.
But while it echoes the past, her music is clearly the product of the here and now, whether she and longtime partner David Rawlings are sharing their own songs or serving as purposely unobtrusive guests of The Decemberists or Old Crow Medicine Show.
But separating past muses and modern themes becomes refreshingly futile on Welch's The Harrow and the Harvest. Using Rawlings as her only bandmate, harmony singer and overall foil, she designs the album as a portrait of ambient Appalachia.
There is a touch of Ralph Stanley here, most notably in Rawlings' scratchy banjo lead on Six White Horses, and a dose of Neil Young there — The Way It Will Be, in particular, is a dead ringer, melodically, for Young's 1974 political requiem On the Beach. Throughout, the song moves along at an almost glacial pace, as if it were saturated with Southern humidity.
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Such a design hasn't always serviced Welch well. On her last album, 2003's Soul Journey, her light-as-air melodies were no match for the oppressive pace and sentiment of her lyrics. On The Harrow and the Harvest, the fit is just about perfect. She has never — on record, at least — displayed such simpatico with Rawlings, from the conversational tones of their vocal harmonies to the equally fluid dialogue they create on guitar and banjo. Dismissing drums and percussion entirely from the recording, save for some hand claps and knee slaps on Six White Horses, further enhances the album's parlor-style appeal.
And then there are the songs, like the glorious Scarlet Town, which harks back to the late '60s music of Pentangle with its dulcimerlike guitar tones and cloudy story lines of happenings that "did mortify my soul." It's a sound that recalls ancient England more than rural Appalachia.
Encapsulating the whole feel of The Harrow and the Harvest is the closing The Way the Whole Thing Ends. Presenting its verses like mantras without a refrain, the song has a slow country-folk appeal that recalls The Grateful Dead's Workingman's Dead. The story line is purely fortuitous, with familiarity — be it familial or purely romantic — continually breeding dissolution. "That's the way the corn bread crumbles," Welch sings after each slowpoke verse in a country tone that barely registers above a whisper. "That's the way the whole thing ends."
Capping everything off is the album's tarot card-style cover art. It portrays Rawlings holding a lit match with flames that circle around to Welch's fingertips. Like the music inside, it pictures a ring of fire around a folkish portrait both devilish in design and deceptively homespun in its presentation.