CD Reviews: Gillian Welch, ‘The Harrow & the Harvest’; Eilen Jewell, ‘Queen of the Minor Key’
As soon as the first few notes of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings’ guitars ring out on the opener “Scarlet Town,” all other thoughts fade away. No more worries of when we’ll hear something new from one of the truest contemporary songwriters of this generation. No more questions about why it took eight long years between albums.
Instead, the mind surrenders to the ears, allowing the rhythm of Gillian’s chords and the gentle picking of Rawlings take over your consciousness.
All is well again.
The exquisite “The Harrow & the Harvest,” Gillian Welch’s fifth studio album, reminds us why we are so willing to wait (not so patiently) for new material, and why we wish it would come more regularly.
The pair has not been a recluse since their last album, “Soul Journey,” in 2003. They did produce a Rawlings-led album, “Friend of a Friend,” last year. They have played out steadily, and they have guested on a number of others’ albums, including most recently, the Decemberists’ “The King Is Dead.”
But we fans are greedy. Greedy for more Gillian.
Among the 10 songs presented on “The Harrow,” only one –“The Way It Will Be” (also popularly titled “Throw Me a Rope” on many YouTube videos) – has been played with any regularity in concert.
These tunes are not background music. This is an album you listen to in your best noise-canceling headphones. The beauty of Gillian Welch songs is their simple beauty: Her voice and his voice intermingle as elegantly as their guitars. Each guitar chord, each plucked note rings with clarity and melds into the next.
The album feels more related to their sparse, earlier works, “Hell Among the Yearlings” and “Time (The Revelator)” than as an extension or expansion of “Soul Journey,” or for that matter, “Friend of a Friend,” which offered more complete instrumentation.
Each song on “Harrow” takes you to a place, mostly to the darker side of life, but seemingly always in search for redemption.
On “Scarlet Town,” Gillian sings: “Now I don’t mind a lean old time or drinking my coffee cold/ but the things I seen in Scarlet Town did mortify my soul” and in “The Way It Will Be” she bemoans “I lost you awhile ago/But still I don’t know why/I can’t say your name/Without a crow flying by…” With song titles like “Dark Turn of Mind” and “Hard Times” (which almost sounds chipper with its picked banjo lines), you pretty much know which side of the tracks you’re visiting.
Yet, while these are tough subjects, the songs are not dour. “Tennessee” is a gorgeous tune detailing life in the South. “It’s only what I want that makes me weak/I had no desire to be a child of sin/Then you went and pressed your whiskers to my cheek.”
This is an album to savor, to listen to over and over to catch subtleties, not only in the music but in the lyrics as well. It is an album that has the feel of being generations old, and while we did wait a long time to hear it, it’s now time to revel in it.
Eilen Jewell, “Queen of the Minor Key”(out now)
It’s a little bit of bad luck that Eilen Jewell’s captivating “Queen of the Minor Key” was released the same day as Gillian Welch’s new album (not to mention Beyonce’s new CD!). While it may initially be overlooked in all the hoopla of Gillian’s first album in eight years, “Queen of the Minor Key” is one not to be missed.
Coming on the heels of her amazing late ’60s-era-sounding “Sea of Tears” (a comparatively short two years ago), “Queen” deftly melds the genres she’s explored on her past albums – the folk and blues phrasings of “Boundary County,” the country swing of “Letters From Sinners & Strangers,” and the electricity of Sea of Tears” -– into a cohesive and unique sound that Eilen Jewell and her band can now claim as their own.
The fact that the album opens with an instrumental, “Radio City,” complete with honking baritone saxophone and no vocals from the headliner, underscores just how comfortable the band is and how willing they are to take chances. Some new voices are added to some songs to lend some depth and color -– Seattle’s Zoe Muth adds sweet backing to a few tunes including “Over Again” and Big Sandy (from Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys) drops in to duet on “Long Road.”
“I Remember You,’’ a slinky, slow-burning number, exemplifies the “minor key” of the title as it scorns an ex-flame about times past: “I remember you/You were locked in a padded room/I tried to teach you solitaire/You just hollered at the moon/I remember you.”
But just because the keys remain minor doesn’t mean the songs’ moods stay dark. The title song brings guitarist-extraordinaire Jerry Miller to the forefront with some swampy Creedence-esque lines atop the country-rock beat of bassist Johnny Sciascia and drummer Jason Beek.
“Santa Fe,” with its wandering pedal steel, is a favorite here. I especially love the imagery in the opening line – “You picked up a broken bottle/In case anyone gave us any trouble/And we walked all the way back to Cortez” -– a beautiful descriptive kind of songwriting we hope to hear more of from Eilen.
Other great tunes include “Warning Signs” and the funky and fun 1-minute-and-45-second Cupid-as-hit-man “Bang Bang Bang,” both play great dirty sax riffs against Miller’s razor-sharp guitar, while the fiddle-driven “Reckless” rides along the country line. “Only One” is a nice Patsy Cline-esque torch song. The album ends with the short surf-rock-like tune “Kalimotxo,” which you wish would never end.