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Gillian Welch
Time (The Revelator)
Acony Records CD ACNY-0103, 2001 (51:42)

Down to basics

Glenn Brooks, 21 July 2002

Back in 1996, Gillian Welch sprang forth with her first album, Revival. Time (The Revelator) is her third album, now on her own label and produced by her ever-since partner, David Rawlings. (In between was Hell Among the Yearlings, which I missed somehow.) Time came out last summer, as Welch was gaining broader recognition from her contributions to the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? and the sub-industry it created.

Welch has said that these are "tiny rock songs," in spite of the fact that the setup is sparely acoustic, consisting of just Welch and her guitar or banjo, and Rawlings and his guitar. There is something to what she claims, with songs about Elvis, rock 'n' roll, and sly quotations along the way from Steve Miller, Bob Dylan, and Randy Newman.

But I think it is more a blues album, both in tone and tune. With the exception of "Red Clay Halo," none of the songs have anything approaching a danceable beat. The album starts slow and dark and, as it insinuates its way, gets even slower and darker, with occasional respites. The musical spirit is set at the very beginning, with the first notes of "Revelator." Welch's guitar hammers on a pair of notes a half-tone apart - a fifth and a bluesy flatted fifth fighting it out tooth and nail. This old blues trick turns up again in a couple of places on the album, notably in "Dear Someone," where the melody lands dramatically at one point on the minor third. In tone, the themes that run through the album - fate and redemption, artistic compulsion, loss and longing, and love gone wrong - lie at the heart of the territory of the blues. "Revelator" quotes from Taj Mahal ("they caught the katy and left me a mule to ride") and even the album title echoes Son House's testifying "John the Revelator." Not that the songs are structured like blues tunes - far from it. Many of them are complex songs, miles away from folk, country and blues. But the ache is there.

The album is built in an arch, starting with "Revelator," a reflection on how time will reveal the true nature of - what? Artistic authenticity? The intentions of business partners? God's plan? Probably all these things. The lyrics are not printed in the album, and Welch's singing is at times (deliberately?) slurred. In spite of the intimate recording, it is not always possible to decipher the exact words. No matter, the spirit comes through.

The next three songs take turns on the old old subject. "My First Lover" rings in Steve Miller's "Quicksilver Girl" to tell the story of a not-very-lamented breakup. "Dear Someone" is a sweet slow country waltz of longing for a partner, or maybe a not-too-unhappy resignation to not having found one. Things pick up for "Red Clay Halo," a bit of a stomp about a clodhopper who can't get a dance with the girls (who prefer the city boys) but expects to reach Heaven with "a red clay robe, with red clay wings, and a red clay halo for my head."

Then the heart of the album starts. "April the 14th Part 1" is the first of a pair of non-identical twins reflecting on disasters large and small. It starts in the large with "When the iceberg hit...," and weaves three disasters that happened on April 14 - the sinking of the Titanic, Lincoln's assassination, and the worst dust storm of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl - around an elliptic story of an ill-fated band's performance. "They looked sick and stoned, and strangely dressed, and no one showed from the local press." Nonetheless, "I wished I played in a rock and roll band."

That wish is made more explicit in two meditations on rock success, "I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll" and "Elvis Presley Blues." "I Want..." was recorded live at the Grand Old Opry's Ryman Auditorium, and the splash of applause that greets the guitar solo comes as a shock in this quiet album. This bluegrass tune can be heard as a old-timey musician's pondering of whether - and how - to sell out to the new music. Then it's in with the new, as Elvis shakes it on TV, becomes a success and dies with a hammer in his hand, having beaten the machine like John Henry.

The other half of the disaster duo, "Ruination Day," picks up with lyrics almost identical to those that ended "April 14th" - "And the great boat sank, and the Okies fled, and the Great Emancipator took a bullet in the head." The song has an angry and apocalyptic edge to it.

"Everything Is Free" is a witty (yes, there is humor on the album if you know where to look) perspective on Napster, with the observation that the artist is "gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn't pay."

Finally, the album slows down yet again to culminate with the ecstatic fourteen-minute-long reverie "I Dream a Highway." A dreamer, a stranger in a strange land, imagines a path back to - well, you listen and decide - on a "a winding river with a band of gold." It ends with a gentle fade, as though it could go on forever. The journey does not end.

This is a fine album, not a masterpiece, but strong enough to suggest that Welch could give us one down the road a piece. The songs are complex and poetic, with themes woven through in richly interesting ways. Yet, it is still an album clearly rooted in tradition. Folk song references abound. John Henry appears as a role model for Elvis and a demolition contractor for Ryman Auditorium; Casey Jones pilots the Titanic; the Okies are "500 miles from home;" the dreamer at the end wants to "die with a hammer in my hand" and asks to "walk me out out in the rain and snow."

The album was produced by Rawlings and recorded at historic RCA Studio B in Nashville (where Elvis, the Everly Brothers, and many others were recorded). I suspect it was recorded pretty much live and straight, with little processing. There is no evident "sweetening" or reverb, thank goodness. The recording is close enough to hear some lip smacking on "Elvis Presley Blues," but could be clearer and have more sense of space around it. There are some production stumbles, with "April 14th" fading away too quickly and "Ruination Day" ending as abruptly as a wooden-legged stomp. On the whole, though, it works just fine.

Highly recommended for fans of great American music, whether, for you, that means Willie Nelson or Neil Young, the Everlys or the Stanley Brothers.

performers  Gillian Welch, vocals, guitar,banjo; David Rawlings, vocals, guitar

production  Produced by David Rawlings. Recorded by Matt Andrews.

songs  Revelator · My First Lover · Dear Someone · Red Clay Halo · April the 14th Part 1 · I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll · Elvis Presley Blues · Ruination Day Part 2 · Everything Is Free · I Dream a Highway

Copyright © 2002 Peppercorn Press. All rights reserved.