Tag Archives: Wrecking Ball

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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Glowing Heart – Aoife O’Donovan

Happy Easter, one and all!

In 1995, Emmylou Harris released an album called Wrecking Ball. At the time it was understood by fans and critics as an attempt by Harris to position herself a step or two away from mainstream Nashville country. The Nashville machine had long seemed venal and conservative, but was now entering an even grimmer phase, of which the success of Shania Twain’s Mutt Lange-produced The Woman in Me (eight singles released, 12 million units sold) and Come On Over (12 singles released 17.5 million units sold) may be taken as emblematic. Mainstream Nashville may have its fans among poptimist critics today – many of whom will, in fairness, acknowledge the debt it currently owes to 1970s West Coast rock and 1980s hair-metal ballads – but in 1995 no one with working ears could have argued for the artistic health of contemporary pop country.

Harris hired Daniel Lanois (best known at the time for his work with U2 and Peter Gabriel) and crafted a record with a distinctive aural personality. If Wrecking Ball continues to be judged an important album beyond the immediate context of Harris’s career, the sound of it will be the reason why – it’s still spawning imitators 19 years on.

Deep bass, drums (or drum loops) that abandon the country shuffle and side-stick for a funk- and/or hip-hop-derived emphasis on backbeat placement, washy synth/organ pads, heavily delayed guitars, heavily echoed everything – add all these up and you get an arrangement and production mindset that seeks to present the song as having been recorded live all together in a confined space, mushing everything up and avoiding clarity with heavily modulated time-domain effects. Not everyone likes it (Christgau called it ‘Lanois’s one seductive trick: to gauze over every aural detail and call your soft focus soul’, in a sniffy review of Wrecking Ball; he’d be even less convinced by Red Dirt Girl in 2000), but when done well it acts as a nice corrective to the sheeny, treble-boosted, hyper-real norm of modern music production.

If Wrecking Ball was the originator of this particular thing – veteran-artist soundscape rock, we might call it, or ‘the Lanois thing’ for shorter shorthand – Bob Dylan’s Time out of Mind (another Lanois production, his second Dylan record after Oh Mercy) was the album that turned it into a virtual genre of its own. Perhaps Time out of Mind has been somewhat overvalued but it is undeniably a fine achievement. It had been some years since Dylan had written anything that spoke so loudly to the small of the back as Not Dark Yet. He hasn’t done it again since. He certainly hasn’t made my head bob up and down like he does on Can’t Wait (thank you, Brian Blade and Jim Keltner).

Dylan didn’t enjoy the process and has self-produced since, but the Lanois thing had now solidified into an aesthetic that others might copy and emulate. He did it again on Willie Nelson’s Teatro did it in a slightly drier fashion and T-Bone Burnett has been doing it whenever possible – sometimes with Sam Phillips, sometimes with Ollabelle (see, for instance, John the Revelator) but most notably with Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, whose Raising Sand brought this sound to daytime radio, primetime TV and a level of industry recognition even Time out of Mind didn’t manage (five Grammys to TooM’s three, number two in both the UK and US album charts and platinum-level sales in both countries). Burnett may only have one production idea, an idea borrowed from someone else, but you can’t deny it’s been successful for him.

Aoife O’Donovan is the latest artist to adopt this sound.

O’Donovan sang in a group called Crooked Still, a progressive bluegrass band from Boston. Progressive in this instance means banjo picking at absolutely furious tempos and the addition of a cellist. This is not, being truthful, my thing; I remain immune to the charms of the banjo. But O’Donovan has a lovely voice and reading several raves of her latest album Fossils, which came out in the autumn of last year, convinced me to give it a listen. That it was produced by Tucker Martine, whose work (particularly his drum sounds) with his wife Laura Veirs I’ve enjoyed, was just an added inducement. Martine adds more of a rock sensibility than O’Donovan’s had before – the drums are mixed pretty high on, say, Beekeeper, and Robin MacMillan’s tom-toms mean business – but without a constant fiddle or banjo accompaniment to share space with her vocal melodies, the focus remains on her. In a good way.

The album leans very heavily at times on the Lanois/Raising Sand thing, most particularly on album highlight Glowing Heart. Yet an idea, executed well, needn’t be original to be effective, compelling, moving – and Glowing Heart is all of these things. Haloed by shimmering, delay-modulated guitars and two hard-panned strummed acoustics, O’Donovan’s gorgeous piece of widescreen melancholia – a song of vast spaces and endless night-time sky – is illuminated by touches of pedal steel (again, with heavy reverb and delay), double bass, drums (playing occasional interjections on snare and toms rather than fulfilling a timekeeping role) and, unexpectedly entering halfway through, fiddle. It’s a fantastic arrangement, weightless and graceful, a reminder that there is still room in the Lanois thing for imagination and invention.

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Aoife O’Donovan (it’s pronounced ‘Ee-fuh’)

Boulder to Birmingham – Emmylou Harris

Boulder to Birmingham is Emmylou Harris’s shattered – and shattering – response to the death of Gram Parsons, from her solo debut Pieces of the Sky (she had put out a pre-Parsons folk record, Gliding Bird, that had sunk without trace, and so Sky is usually considered her debut proper). Pieces of the Sky features many of the same musicians who had played on Parsons’ GP and Grievous Angel, which I have written about before here. In that post I made a few grouses about the work of the backing band – Elvis Presley’s TCB Band – on those albums. Some of those same guys are present here too (James Burton, Glen D. Hardin, Ron Tutt), along with such quality players from the world of country rock as Bernie Leadon, Ben Keith, Billy Payne and Byron Berline. But Harris and producer Brian Ahern pulled much greater performances from the supporting cast than had been evident on Gram’s records, though. With Emmylou leading them, the band do far more than just take care of business. This isn’t showbiz. Instead, there’s a real emotional wallop on this record that I don’t find on the majority of Parsons’ solo material (but do find on the first Burritos record, just in case it seems like I’m being a Gram hater. Parsons was a frequently inspired songwriter, but I think his best recorded work was done with Chris Hillman, not James Burton, regardless of who was the better guitar player).

Harris is a reliable singer and can breathe life into even the flimsiest material (God knows she’d have to do some of that in her time), but when paired with a song of substance, she’s devastating, the keening edge of her voice just cutting right through to the song’s emotional core. But in all her long career, she’s probably never topped this vocal, and as a writer, she’s never topped this song.

The aural integrity of the recording and the quality of the musicianship evident on this record don’t come cheap, though, and Pieces of the Sky was apparently the most expensive country record ever made at the time of its release. Fortunately it was a mainstream hit and began Harris’s successful Nashville career, which lasted until 1995, when, in her late forties and facing diminishing returns in the era of Shania Twain and Faith Hill, she released Wrecking Ball and began a second career that straddled the worlds of alternative rock and trad country.

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