Amer­i­cana

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music Reviews - Tony Hil­lier

Poor David’s Al­manack David Rawlings Acony/Planet Old-fash­ioned yet time­less and in­ex­tri­ca­bly en­twined, al­bums crafted by David Rawlings and his part­ner-in-rhyme Gil­lian Welch have be­come the bedrock of 21st-cen­tury Amer­i­cana mu­sic. Sat­u­rated in the rich ver­nac­u­lar of the Amer­i­can folk and coun­try tra­di­tion in acous­tic and elec­tric beds spiced with spine-tin­gling three and four-part har­mony cho­ruses, Poor David’s Al­manack — the cou­ple’s eighth joint out­ing — sets a new high-wa­ter mark. To sug­gest that Rawlings’s newly writ­ten songs sound more like wellsea­soned Ap­palachian stan­dards is en­tirely com­pli­men­tary. In­stantly catchy, with sin­ga­long cho­ruses fea­tur­ing the com­bined voices of the dy­namic duo and past and present mem­bers of fel­low Nashville cats the Old Crow Medicine Show, the 10 tracks are sim­ply ir­re­sistible. An old-school ap­proach that en­tailed record­ing on ana­log tape at Rawlings and Welch’s home stu­dio, over a one-week ses­sion, has pal­pa­bly en­hanced the im­me­di­acy of a set su­per­vised by em­i­nent sound en­gi­neer Ken Scott. The rhythm gui­tar of for­mer Medicine Show man Wil­lie Wat­son, in tan­dem with the equally punchy up­right bass of the Punch Brothers’ Paul Kow­ert, plus the earthy fid­dle of Crooked Still’s Brit­tany Haas on sev­eral tracks, lays a per­fect plat­form for Rawlings’s in­ci­sive lead singing, solo­ing and in­tri­cate ar­rang­ing. Ex­pertly tai­lored back­ing tracks, al­lied to the sweet­est vo­cal har­mony and Rawlings’s earthy lyrics, com­bine to cre­ate im­agery as Amer­i­can as the Grand Canyon. The gui­tar-slinger’s 1930s arch­top gets vin­tage work­outs in the bluesy Gui­tar Man, a song that could be con­strued as a wry self-com­posed paean by Rawlings (“Go, tell your friends / Here comes the gui­tar man”), and in the com­pelling Cum­ber­land Gap. Nei­ther track should be con­fused with pre­vi­ous well-known songs recorded un­der those ti­tles. Rawlings’s take on the ge­o­graph­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant “devil of a gap” where Ken­tucky, Ten­nessee and Vir­ginia con­verge — and first reg­is­tered in song in a folk stan­dard that orig­i­nated in the 19th cen­tury and was later recorded by Woody Guthrie — has the singer swap­ping verses with his part­ner and chant­ing a spec­tral cho­rus over swirling or­gan and stomp­ing beat. Satan rears his ugly head again in the quirky Yup, in which the quiv­ery sound of saw adds to eerie at­mo­spher­ics. Bal­anc­ing the re­li­gious ledger and fem­i­nine al­le­gory, Good God a Woman is a tongue-in-cheek gen­u­flec­tion to “the big man” un­der­pinned by Kow­ert’s slap bass. In the rol­lick­ing Money is the Meat in the Co­conut, Welch pro­vides ef­fec­tive rhythm on hands and feet, in other tracks on more con­ven­tional drums and per­cus­sion. Slower in tempo but lack­ing noth­ing in qual­ity, the bal­lads Air­plane and Lind­sey But­ton of­fer a buf­fer be­tween the beefier cuts, with strings or­na­men­ta­tion. Tasty acous­tic gui­tar fills work with driv­ing chords and fid­dle in the open­ing Midnight Train to put the al­bum on the right track. Har­mo­nium ac­com­pa­ni­ment puts the seal on a sump­tu­ous gospel-in­fused sign-off, Put ‘Em Up Solid.

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