Incredibly, Gillian Welch once played bass in a college goth band. But after an epiphany hearing bluegrass duo the Stanley Brothers, her music and image have been steeped in a nostalgic strain of Americana, from her rough-hewn 1996 debut Revival to this collection of reel-to-reel-recorded covers with Dave Rawlings, her long-term musical partner. Initially released on a short run of CDs after their Nashville studio was destroyed by a tornado at the start of lockdown, this release is the first to bear both their names.
It’s an odd collection. Initially, the languorous intensity of these 10 songs is overwhelming, the couple’s harmonies fusing together into a consistent, glowing sound. This approach often wraps these songs up in an obfuscating gauze, however. Poor Ellen Smith, the tale of a woman shot through the heart, sounds glossily stoned. Their take on Elizabeth Cotten’s Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie, which wishes death on an old woman, loses the original’s quicksilver darkness. The Rawlings-led Bob Dylan covers (Señor, Abandoned Love) veer dangerously towards the work of an impressionist. When Welch leads, the album breathes.
A cover of John Prine’s Hello in There, led by her, is enormously moving, a song about ageing and loneliness by the musician who died last April, at 73, of Covid-19. “All the news just repeats itself,” Welch sings tenderly, “like some forgotten dream that we’ve both seen.” The pandemic hangs heavy throughout, but dark humour lurks behind the bluegrass title track and on country closer Y’all Come, encouraging neighbours to pop by when they can. You sense tough times have made this pair retreat into a comfortable, comforting place, but they’re better stretching at their seams.
Also out this month
Vedan Kolod’s Gorodische (Bandcamp) is a full-throated set of Russian and Siberian traditionals, Tatiana and Valery Naryshkin’s voices raging like storms against the hurdy gurdy and the gudok. Jon Wilks’s Up the Cut (self-released) explores the fascinating history of Birmingham street balladry, a thriving 19th-century industry, through simple, deeply affecting voice-and-guitar settings. The Lover’s Ghost and Stowaway are especially beautiful, delicate with love and loss. Patterson Dipper’s Unearthing (self-released) is another ambitious, affecting project, reshaping English classical songs into the folk idiom. Patterson’s voice has the solid, sensual heft of Nic Jones or Dick Gaughan, while Dipper’s viola d’amore has texture, grit and grace.