Gillian Welch – Soul Journey

Gillian Welch
Soul Journey

On her latest album, Soul Journey, Gillian Welch has made a well-timed break from the distinctive sound we’ve come to expect from her. On her previous three, Revival, Hell Among the Yearlings, and Time (The Revelator) the personnel was limited, with a handful of exceptions, to herself and her partner David Rawlings playing acoustic guitars and the occasional banjo. The effect on those albums, far from being boring or predictably “folky,” was haunting, and sometimes downright scary (in the best Neil Young sense of the word). Welch and Rawlings found a way to create an enormous sonic space in the harmonies created by their interwoven guitars and voices, which often became so seamless that you didn’t know where one player began and the other ended. As beautiful as those albums were, I always suspected that there was only so far the two could go in that vain without repeating themselves. Evidence of that possibility is found on the few two-guitar songs on Soul Journey, which don’t seem as compelling on first listen as the remarkable compositions on the earlier records.
I’m happy to report, then, that most of Soul Journey takes off in more than one new direction. Time (The Revelator) had already hinted in this direction (Welch has described that album as a loud, electric rock album played quietly on acoustic instruments), but Soul Journey fleshes out the impulse away from folk. While Welch and Rawlings still do most of the playing, they’ve expanded their repertoire to include drums and organs, and they’ve invited on a few guest players as well, including veteran session player Greg Leisz on Dobro, bassist Jim Boquist, and fiddle player Ketcham Secor. Of course, it isn’t just the addition of a couple of instruments that makes this album sound so different. There is a whole new approach to the soundscape Welch and Rawlings create. The rhythm section sounds so exactly like mid-70s Bob Dylan records that I’m certain they had to have done it on purpose, and it sets the tone for what Welch seems to be aiming for on the album as a whole. It’s far more ragged around the edges than her previous, pristine recordings. She even allows her voice (like butter, always) to get downright razor-y on a couple of tracks, “One Monkey” and “Lowlands” in particular. Also like that era of Dylan (the Blood on the Tracks and Desire era), Welch focuses her songwriting on road ballads and character sketches, rather than on the deeply probing mood pieces her listeners are more familiar with.
One thing that hasn’t changed at all is Welch’s respectful, almost worshipful, attitude towards the “old time” music of Appalachia and the Southeast in general. She still sounds just as if she stepped right out of 1930’s Tennessee, or at least off the set of Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou? (Indeed, not only did she contribute to that movie’s now-famous soundtrack, but she also appeared in a cameo role as a customer in a general store. I’m getting off track here, but there’s surely a great trivia or drinking game to be made of musician cameos in Coen Brothers movies: Welch in Oh, Brother, Aimee Mann and Jimmie Dale Gilmour in Big Lebowski, etc. E-mail me from my staff page if I’m forgetting any). Anyway, the first single is called “Wayside/Back in Time,” and in its title and other ways certainly does nothing to disabuse one of the notion of Welch’s past-worship: “Back, baby, back in time / I wanna go back to when you were mine.” It’s a simple song not only of lost love, but also of lost A.M. radio stations and other simple pleasures (“Peaches in the summertime, apples in the fall / If I can’t have you all the time, I won’t have none at all”). This is lighter fare than can be heard on the first three albums. “One Little Song” simply and disarmingly muses over the question of whether there are any more original songs left to be written. “Look at Miss Ohio” is a sketch about a midwestern beauty queen who just wants to shake off the Puritanism of her surroundings (“I wanna do right, but not right now”).
As usual, it’s always disorienting to remember that Welch is actually a Californian, daughter of a Hollywood-employed professional musician. This “tourism” on her part, though, has never done anything to limit the effectiveness with which she re-creates the landscapes she sings of, and it doesn’t impinge on the authority with which she can sing traditional songs, such as Journey‘s “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor” and “I Had a Real Good Mother and Father.” Now that she’s demonstrated that she’s more than willing to explore the realms within which folk music can play, Gillian Welch will surely be able to keep intoxicating her listeners with both her alto voice and her unique recasting of a South alternately lost and imaginary, but as mythical and exotic as Faulkner’s.