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Soul Journey & Hell Among the Yearlings – Gillian Welch

Gillian Welch may be the greatest working songwriter (I can’t think of a credible alternative), but at least two of her albums are interesting failures rather than works of consistently high quality. They’re her second and fourth, 1998’s Hell Among the Yearlings and 2003’s Soul Journey.

Soul Journey is the more easily understood. Perhaps sensing that Time (the Revelator) was a masterpiece of what Welch and David Rawlings refer to as their ‘duet music’ and that they probably couldn’t top it by doing the same thing again, they embraced a wider range of instruments than their customary two guitars (or guitar and banjo) and two voices.

Initially, this slightly bigger palette of drums, electric bass and guitar and fiddle is welcome. The sound if woody, warm and confident. Look at Miss Ohio, which opens the record is a fine song, and the rhythm section (the drums on the album were all played by Rawlings and Welch; the bass by Rawlings, Welch or engineer Matt Andrews) are very far from timid. Unfortunately they’re also very far from subtle and very far from supple. This is a rhythm section that makes Crazy Horse’s Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot sound like Bernard Purdie and Chuck Rainey playing with Steely Dan. The ham-handedness is quite charming at first, but over the course of several more songs in this slow, four-square idiom (the unfortunate One Monkey, the somnambulant Lowlands, Wrecking Ball), it becomes very wearisome. Wayside is a bit of an exception — the feel is different, the internal balance of the drums is different; possibly Welch and Rawlings swapped roles for this one — but the writing is a bit flabby. There are more verses and choruses than needed, given the lack of melodic development.

Wrecking Ball requires a bit more comment. It is the album’s big missed opportunity. Something close to a great song, spoiled by a basic track that wouldn’t have got past a third-party producer and some sketchy, messy playing from the sitting-in members of Son Volt and fiddler Ketcham Secor. Perhaps there’s a live version out there from their tours with Old Crow Medicine Show that properly captures the swagger of this slab of heroic self-mythology; the Soul Journey version’s a pallid demo.

So that’s about half the album accounted for. What of the rest? The readings of Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor and I Had a Real Good Mother and Father capture Welch at her most intimate and raw; indeed, with the electrical noise that runs throughout the first and the general gauziness of the second, this is also — apparently — off-the-cuff, lo-fi Welch. Nevertheless, they work; the strength of the (traditional) material and the soft, unadorned performances make them among the album’s most compelling moments. No One Knows My Name (the Carter Family’s Motherless Children, with Welch’s own lyrics) is similarly effective, although a slightly bigger, more polished production.

I Made a Lover’s Prayer recalls the Ryan Adams of Heartbreaker, all mournful harmonica and flatpicked guitar. More of a mood than a song, it is perfect as the album’s penultimate track (although as we have noted, the payoff falls flat). Whether it needed to stretch itself over five minutes is another matter. One Little Song is something else again: Soul Journey’s finest, most indelible moment, and possibly the best song she’s written since Time (the Revelator). This is Welch at her sweetest, her most wry, rueful, optimistic, all at once. I know of no more perfect song about songwriting, or any kind of writing; about the fleeting satisfaction of having pulled something that you can be proud of for a while, until you’re hit by the realisation that you need to do it again, because that’s what writers do. Between them, Welch and T.S. Eliot have said everything there is to say about writing.

Welch first:

There’s gotta be a song left to sing
‘Cause everybody can’t have thought of everything
One little note that ain’t been used
One little word, ain’t been abused a thousand times
In a thousand rhymes

Now Eliot (from ‘East Coker’):

…and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate,
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate – but there is no competition –
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

*

As opposed to being little tiny folk songs or traditional songs, they’re really tiny rock songs. They’re just performed in this acoustic setting. In our heads we went electric without changing instruments.

That’s been Welch’s standard line on what happened between Hell Among the Yearlings and Time (the Revelator) to make the latter album so distinct from the former. In a piece I wrote in the first few weeks of this blog (one I’m not too thrilled with in retrospect), I pointed to a slightly different phenomenon: Welch and Rawlings abandoned murder ballad-, mountain music-style lyrics and started writing lyrics that, while using plainspoken contemporary language, were slices out of the middle of a narrative, or were associative, meditative, hallucinatory and contemplative (I Dream a Highway is all of these things). They also reinstated verse-chorus forms, having largely abandoned them on Yearlings. This change of approach may simply have been the other side of the coin to Welch’s ‘going electric’ concept, but while that’s a cute phrase to feed an interviewer, it doesn’t really get at the substantial change in writing approach that had happened in the space of one album cycle.

Hell Among the Yearlings finds Welch and Rawlings running their original conception of their music into the ground. The majority of the songs are strophic in form, if not in lyric, and have eddying, incantatory, repeating melodies, with refrains rather than choruses. Perhaps this was a conscious attempt to bring greater authenticity to their writing, and when it works, the songs do draw strength from this employment of a cussed, nuggety form. Rock of Ages and (my favourite) Caleb Meyer are the strongest examples of this kind of thing – not coincidentally, they are the only songs from Yearlings to feature regularly in the setlists Welch and Rawlings played on their 2011 tour. I’m Not Afraid to Die is stark and haunting and is another top-class effort. But songs like Winter’s Come and Gone and Miner’s Refrain don’t quite cast the spells they attempting to; My Morphine is a little too studied to be truly spooky; One Morning’s lyrical conceit (dead soldier on horseback, turning up at his mother’s house in Lexington ‘as work I begun’, brought home by his horse — ah, bless) is closer to “End of the Trail”/El Cid kitsch than Welch perhaps realised, making the song unintentionally comic:

One mornin’, one mornin’ the boy of my breast
Came to my door unable to rest
Even in the arms of death.

Sorry, but no. This approach, this aesthetic, was misconceived, wrongheaded, juvenile even. Abandoning it was Welch’s artistic salvation. If she hadn’t done so, she’d have ended up down the same dead-end road as Cahoots-era Robbie Robertson.

So Hell Among the Yearlings, impoverished melodically by her own high standards and with a lyrical approach that too often comes over as gauche, is the only true failure in her canon, and even so it contains songs that would be career highlights for lesser talents. But the lesser albums of major talents are often as fascinating as their unqualified successes, and I revisit both albums as regularly as Time (the Revelator), an album so overwhelming it doesn’t seem to fit easily into daily life. It requires the time to listen to and absorb the whole thing. A few songs lifted from each of Yearlings and Soul Journey, added to some choice cuts from Revival and The Harrow & the Harvest, on the other hand, makes a perfect playlist.

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Gillian Welch, 2001

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No Hendrix, no Clapton, no Vai – five personal favourite guitar solos, part 5

5) Revelator – Gillian Welch (solos by David Rawlings)

I love every note that David Rawlings plays. Every clanking, honking, midrangey note. The man’s a genius.

Rawlings is Gillian Welch‘s lead guitarist, harmony singer and husband. The entity that releases records under the name ‘Gillian Welch’ is actually composed of two people: Welch and Rawlings. When singing together, their voices blend seamlessly; when playing guitar, their two approaches mesh perfectly.

Let’s start by talking guitar sounds (always a favourite place to start for me). Welch plays a Gibson J-50 from the 1950s, a spruce-and-mahogany, slope-shouldered dreadnought with the standard upside-down bridge and an enormous pickguard that looks out of proportion to the body. It’s a classic guitar with a classic tone. Rawlings’ choice of instrument is more idiosyncratic: a 1935 Epiphone Olympic archtop (mahogany back and sides, spruce top). This is not a typical singer-songwriter guitar. It lacks the depth, the roundedness, the woody bottom end, that you’d look for in guitar were you looking to accompany yourself solo. Archtops are thinner, more pinched-sounding, more brittle and louder. They were a response to a particular problem in the pre-amplication era: how to make the guitar audible in a big band. The answer was to incorporate violin-style construction concepts (an arched top, f-holes) to give the guitar more focus in a narrower range, in effect to make it more banjo-like. Now, I’m not a big fan of the banjo sonically, but I love what Rawlings can do with an archtop in the context of Welch’s songs, how the two guitars blend tonally and how Rawlings expertly weaves in and out of Welch’s vocals

This is the essence of being a soloist who plays with a vocalist: knowing when to play and how much to play without taking the listener’s ear away from the singer. David Rawlings walks this line brilliantly. He’s a busy player; he’s not a restrained or minimalist kind of guy. But he plays tastefully. He knows that while every Gillian Welch gig will have a few dozen idiotic guitar fanboys who just want him to play licks (these are the people who’ve sent the prices of second-hand Epiphone Olympics rocketing in the last ten years, because they can’t think of an original idea for themselves), the majority want to hear Gillian sing songs, and so he plays with that end in mind.

So he knows when to play, but how about what to play? I like how little bits of jazz and rock music make their way into his work, how you can always hear in his playing that rock music is where he comes from. When he toured his David Rawlings Machine record a few years ago, he covered Neil Young’s Cortez the Killer. It comes as no surprise that the guy who began the third solo on Revelator by playing a repeated aggressive, obstinate Eb over an A minor chord is a Neil Young fan. The whole song, coiled and twisted with tension as it is, has been building up to this one outburst, and when Rawling hits it it’s like an explosion. Time (The Revelator) is full of little moments like this. In fact, they crop up in all Welch’s albums. But this tiny little snippet of music, just a few seconds long, is my favourite in Welch and Rawlings’ whole body of work.

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David Rawlings – he knows how to rock and roll