I was aware of Gillian Welch, and I think I’ve heard her sing backing vocals on other artists’ work, but I didn’t really know much about her before this. I have some vague memory I might have listened to another one of her albums once and then dropped it, simply because the reviews weren’t quite good enough or something. So I didn’t really understand how retro she was.
Some of the songs are really good. The title track is excellent and there are a couple of others that are very good. However, they’re not consistent and she’s definitely one of those writers where I often like a part of the song and not all of it.
The instrumentation is extremely sparse, which is something I should like. And I like it on the best songs. But Welch sometimes goes almost old timey in her delivery which is a shame. She has a pretty great voice but sometimes she sounds like she’s deliberately trying to sound anachronistic. (Though hardly always.) For example, on “Red Clay Halo” where she really sounds like she’s trying to sing in an old style that doesn’t fit her voice. I don’t really have time for that if nothing else is happening in the music. And it makes this whole thing feel more conservative and nostalgic than it otherwise should be. (There’s some play with the lyrics that make you think this is all deliberate, trying to sing “new old” songs, if you know what I mean. But it still doesn’t work for me.) The sparse instrumentation doesn’t help with this feeling.
But I think I might be okay with all of this, or more than I am but then there’s “I Dream a Highway,” a preposterously long song that reminds me a little bit of how Low might end an album. (Not musically, obviously, but in terms of suddenly throwing you an incomprehensibly long track at the end for, um, reasons.) None of these songs would support 15 minutes without a lot of stellar soloing between her and Rawlings. And I just zone out during “I Dream a Highway” and not in a good way. It’s hard to know what they were thinking and it leaves a bad taste in the mouth of my remembering self which casts a bit of a pall over an album I mostly liked.