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Gillian Welch's Back-to-Basics Harvest

By Jon Graef in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 21, 2011 8:20PM

thth500.png It's been eight years since folk-country singer Gillian Welch and her musical partner David Rawlings put out an album. Is the newly-released The Harrow And The Harvest worth the wait? The short answer is "yes" -- albeit with reservations.

While Welch and Rawlings have been busy on their own (Welch did guest vocals on The Decemberists' The King Is Dead), they've not released a record together since 2003's Soul Journey. This year's The Harrow And The Harvest is a back-to-basics album of plaintive, rustic guitars and vocals, compared to Soul Journey which had a full band sound and instrumentation.

It's certainly great to have Welch and Rawlings back on the artistic roll call together, but, at its onset, The Harrow And The Harvest sounds a little too casual, like the duo focused solely on just the idea of making music together, as opposed to making great music together.

Harvest's early tracks like "The Way It Will Be" and "Scarlett Town" have their admirable artistic qualities -- the low-key harmonization in the former and the acoustic guitar solos in the latter, for instance -- but they're so low-key that they don't make a real emotional impact on the listener. (Not at least in the way that Soul Journey's "Look At Miss Ohio" did). They're perfectly pleasant, but thoroughly non-distinctive.

The exception amongst the first few songs is "Dark Turn of Mind," a lovely, simple song whose descending chromatic melodies evoke what a collaboration between Willie Nelson and Aimee Mann might sound like. Harvest stumbles at first, but gains strong musical footing with a sequence of songs ("Tennessee" through "Silver Dagger") that show musical complexity and Americana-inspired melody need not be mutually exclusive.

Ultimately, The Harrow And The Harvest takes way too long to get to its artistic peak, but, at its best, the album is filled with a natural, heartbreakingly beautiful melodicism that only the human voice and a few organic instruments (harmonica, banjo, acoustic guitar) can achieve. But considering the artistic heights The Harrow & The Harvest reaches, and, indeed, the artistic heights Welch herself as reached in the past, this Harvest yields an unfortunately bare musical crop far too often.

Gillian Welch plays Friday, July 22, at The Vic Theatre, 3145 N Sheffield Ave., 7:30 p.m., $29