The Harrow & The Harvest
A woman, a man, 2 acoustic guitars, a couple of banjos, harmonica, hand-claps and foot-stomps; combine these with beautifully poignant songs and you have The Harrow & The Harvest, the first release from Gillian Welch since 2003. Welch has made the starkest album of her career, tilling subject matter that she’s turned before, gleaning emotions from the challenges, the melancholy, and bittersweet beauty created by human frailty. At her side, is her long time partner, Dave Rawlings, always supportive, never demanding of the spotlight, although deserving of the credit.
Welch’s music possesses a timeless quality. Rooted in folk, the songs reflect dust bowl landscapes and the air of Appalachia, a neat trick for a girl born in New York City and raised in California. Her songs are steeped in mystery, dropping clues about dreadful events and luckless people without ever revealing the details of her mysterious lyrics. “On the day I came to Scarlet Town you promised I’d be your bride/but you left me here to rot away like holly on a mountain side/now look at that deep well, look at that dark grave” she sings in “Scarlet Town.” Has she been murdered or simply abandoned? Likewise “Silver Dagger” is sung by a woman who may be a ghost, who may have been murdered by her lover. The possibilities are yours to ponder. Welch acknowledges her melancholy nature on “Dark Turn of Mind” as she sings “some girls are bright as morning and some have a dark turn of mind.” Despite these dire situations there is nothing depressing about the record. Welch is simply observing human nature without judging it.
Welch and Rawlings sepia-toned vocals are so intricately intertwined that it is nearly impossible to separate the two particularly on the track “The Way It Will Be.” The pair weaves their guitar work with Welch supporting Rawlings' superb delicate picking. Certainly he is one of the most unsung guitar heroes playing today. The duo takes a break from the guitar pairings for banjo interludes. “Hard Times,” although not Stephen Foster’s song, is a tribute to the man as Welch references many phrases and characters from his songs. My personal favorite is the closing track. “That’s the Way the Whole Thing Ends.” It’s a sweet farewell to an ex-lover who offers an apology a little too late. It’s intimate, witty, and gorgeous and epitomizes the album. The Harrow & The Harvest is a quiet affair that deserves a patient listener who is willing to be transported to another time and place.