DAVID RAWLINGS Gillian Welch’s other half puts the load right on him
For all their charms, the arrival of each new David Rawlings album inevitably poses an awkward question: why does it exist, when a new Gillian Welch album does not? Since 2011’s extraordinary The Harrow & The Harvest, six years have passed in which Welch’s studio energies seem to have been concentrated on reversing the polarities of her partnership with Rawlings.
In democratic terms it makes sense, given the collaborative nature of all their work. Welch cowrites five of the ten songs here and contributes harmonies, at the very least, to all of them. Welch makes for a brilliant backing singer, but it’s hard not to speculate what the terrifically plaintive “Airplane” might have sounded like if she’d taken the lead, especially given its affinities with The Harrow & The Harvest’s “The Way It Will Be”.
Perhaps the answer lies in something Rawlings told Uncut in 2015. “Gillian’s voice has such a great quality that the more you strip away around it the better it sounds, which is why we’ve always made very sparse records,” he said. “But when I’m singing, it’s back to, ‘OK, how do we present this strange instrument?’” Consequently, Poor David’s Almanack betrays a keenness to flesh out their aesthetic: Bowie vet Ken Scott engineers, and a more elaborate sound design incorporates strings on the aforementioned “Airplane”.
In that context, Rawlings is a fine frontman, an amiable convenor of sessions where Brittany Haas’ fiddle takes the spotlight as often as his own discreet virtuosity on the guitar, where Dawes and the Old Crow Medicine Show drop in, and where Welch can add “hands and feet” percussion as well as drums. That old-time, good-time vibe can occasionally dip into hokeyness, as the album title signals, but slower numbers like “Lindsey Button” and “Put ’Em Up Solid” are where the group excels. As Rawlings and Welch’s vocals intertwine with those of Willie Watson, there’s a hymnal quality to the sound and a communitarian warmth; a desire, explicit or otherwise, to pay homage to The Band, another act who understood the enduring possibilities of a collective approach to roots music.