Consider this a late follow-up to the post from last week on demos and alternate versions
Gillian Welch’s Revival was a pretty astonishing debut, but in the light of the records she’s made since – particular her masterwork Time (The Revelator) and 2011’s The Harrow & the Harvest – it sounds a little studied, a little produced. There’s a good reason for this. It was.
Welch’s first two albums were produced by T-Bone Burnett. On their later releases, the producer’s credit would be Rawlings’s, and he and Welch would pare things back to the simplest presentations possible: two guitars and two voices recorded live with the pair sitting just a couple of feet apart. But when making Revival, they’d not yet settled on this as the best means of presentation for Welch’s songs, and anyway, Burnett was calling the shots.
Now, T-Bone Burnett is not that intrusive a producer. Not in the grand scheme of things. I’ve said some critical things about his reproduction of the Daniel Lanois formula here, but the guy does a good job most of the time. So while Revival shows some accommodation to the mainstream in the relative bigness of its sounds compared to those of their later work (the acoustic guitar sound is closer, so to speak, and a good deal sparklier), the production is still mostly sympathetic to the songs.
Demos for Revival are floating around the internet and they make fascinating listening. The album tracklisting emphasises the old-timey, character-study aspect of Welch’s songs, and in light of the flak she caught from some over tracks like Annabelle*, I wonder how different the response to Revival would have been if the album had included the charming We Must Look Like We’re in Love or I Don’t Want to Go Downtown.
Of the songs that made the cut, the most different in arrangement was probably Orphan Girl, something of a signature song for Welch after it was covered by Emmylou Harris, before her own version came out. The demo features prominent Rawlings lead guitar, harmonica, brushed snare and subtle double bass. It could have been recorded in the 1970s or even the 1950s with no changes whatsoever, and is rather lovely. The only slight mark against it is the harmonica, which works well during its solo but is a little too perky and intrusive elsewhere. Mixing desks do have faders and mute buttons, though.
The Burnett-produced Orphan Girl is, while sparser, more produced. The tempo is slowed down pretty significantly. The band-playing-in-a-room vibe is replaced by two acoustic guitars (I’m assuming it’s two tracks of Welch, as Rawlings is not credited with acoustic on the song) and a bunch of atmospheric stuff (Optigan and 6-string electric bass) by Rawlings and Burnett. This stuff runs throughout the song, welling up under the final chorus for a big finish. It’d cross the line into just being crass if it were any more prominent, but even as it is it’s a blot on the song, which simply didn’t need such flourishes to heighten its emotion.
What’s different between the two Welch versions of Orphan Girl, ultimately, is self-consciousness. Really good demos frequently come to light on reissues and expanded releases these days, and when they do it’s not unusual for fans to prefer them. It’s usually because there’s something a little stilted about the final version, with the artist feeling the pressure of having to nail the song, and becoming conscious of their performance in a way they wouldn’t be normally. Orphan Girl is a case in point. For her fans looking back on it, Revival may feel like a simulacrum of what Welch and Rawlings do best, but at the time we had no way of knowing that, unless we’d been fortunate enough to see them play in a small club or theatre. When they acquired the clout to simply do their own thing, they did, and they began making records that match the greatness of Welch’s songs.
This is how they do it.
*The accusations of fakery against her in-character storytelling were never levelled against Randy Newman or Robbie Robertson when their songs took a character’s perspective, whether that character lived in the 1860s or 1960s. It said way more about the prejudices of certain reviewers than it did about Welch. But nonetheless, Welch’s writing did take a step forward when she abandoned old-timey language and themes, and began writing demotic lyrics in an unidentified but discernible “now”; when it became harder to separate the “I” in the singer’s songs and the singer herself.