Almo Sounds AMSD-80006
review by Art Menius
Gillian Welch affects a meek, Depression-era appearance. Her singing proves anything but meek, depressing, or affected. Just listen to her sing her own “Tear My Stillhouse Down,” the song which won her the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest a few years ago. With a slow burn tempo and steadily intensifying full electric support, Welch declaims the lyrics in a measured pace. With a worldliness far beyond her years, she imparts a bite to every word in stark contrast to the Nashville Bluegrass Band’s infectious treatment, which became a #1 bluegrass hit. Hers is a take charge, you-shall-listen-to-what-I-have-written voice without a hint of preciousness.
Yet on the opening track, “Orphan Girl,” and the closing “Only One and Only” Welch projects vulnerability in the classic female singer-songwriter sense. “Paper Wings” find her a home with a twisted sort of traditional pop arrangement that recalls k.d. Lang. “Pass You By” provides a gritty, blues rock grinder that stands comparison to anything by Lucinda Williams or Bonnie Raitt. David Rawlings, touring companion and co-writer on seven of these ten original titles, serves up deliciously burning electric guitar. The next selection, “Barroom Girls,” presents a quiet, guitar-and-voice storyteller. On “By The Mark” Gillian delivers a original gospel piece with conviction, although it may be the weakest cut on the CD.
As a singer, she seems natural and effectively expressive in all these different settings. Halfway from Iris Dement’s hillbilly earnestness and Shawn Colvin’s urban sophistication, Welch’s voice demands greater appreciation with every listening. She fits best with slow to medium tempo material, and whether the particular song rocks or reflects, that’s what we get at this Revival. Welch’s voice cascades over each word, delivered carefully and importantly as if strictly budgeted. That repetitive modest tempo ties together a diverse body of songs, but also can produce of soporific effect.
Welch’s writing has earned comparisons to Woody Guthrie’s work. Her ability not to use one extra word provides the justification, as does the rare facility for writing new songs that sound like they’ve been filtered through generations of tradition. Her writing, however, is not journalistic, political, or particularly anthemic. Her precise craftsmanship makes me doubt she spins these out with Woody’s haste either. I hear more similarities to John Prine. Welch places her songs in specific places and characters. She often sketches a complex situation in just a couple of opening lines, hooking the listener for all that follows. “Barroom Girls” begins:
Oh the night came undone like a party dress
And fell at her feet in a beautiful mess
The smoke and the whiskey came home in her curls
And they crept through the dreams of the barroom girls
After just one listening, I already had four cuts from Gillian Welch’s Revival floating around my head. That speaks both to the venerable T-Bone Burnett’s production work and to the arrival via Revival of a singer and songwriter of extraordinary potential.