Gillian Welch is the truest kind of cool, the kind that lingers in the background letting the hotshots and attention hogs perform their circus acts and press junkets and media campaigns and when their dizzying dust settles, she steps back up to the mic and shows everybody how it’s done. Her release schedule is a lot like her songs: meditative, fully-formed and slow as Christmas. Her fifth and most recent album The Harrow and the Harvest is as much a follow up to 2003’s Soul Journey as the introspective years of college are a follow up to the adoring steps of adolescence.
The tunes on this new record bear plenty of resemblance to the best parts of Soul Journey and her 2001 masterpiece Time (The Revelator)—a haze hangs about her and partner David Rawlings’ guitar and vocals, operating less as a duo than as an eerily synergistic whole. She maintains her penchant for repeated phrases, simple colloquialized fragments that become haunting chants, gaining psychic momentum with each cycle. Witness “everybody’s buying little baby clothes” punctuating the epic tragedy of “The Way it Goes.”
What’s different this time is the precision and the scope. The carefully maintained slack and rustic veneer of her previous records is replaced with a spellbinding clockwork of guitars and harmonies, not really slicking things up as much as honing their edge. Her drawly come-ons are still point on: “Say you wanna see my blue jeans / Hangin’ on your old clothesline” in “The Way the Whole Thing Ends.” Note the existential lean of the songs; there is also a “The Way it Will Be,” where she asks someone to “throw me a rope on the rolling tide.” She might still sound like that aching, fallen church girl singing in the gravel parking lot of your dreams, but The Harrow and the Harvest has her emerging as something deeper and cooler than even her most ardent fans could expect.
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings play Tipitina’s Thursday, August 11 at 9 p.m.