Gillian Welch: Hell Among the Yearlings

Gillian Welch
Hell Among the Yearlings
Almo Sounds

SAY ALL YOU want about hip hop and R&B's chart dominance or electronica's endless hype, but for me the present pop moment is a golden age for female country singer-songwriters. Beyond the roots rock Holy Trinity--Iris DeMent, Lucinda Williams, and Allison Krauss--there are more than a few upstart candidates for greatness, from Nashville-ready Kim Richey to female-fronted, fringe dwellers Freakwater. Gillian Welch is one of many foot soldiers in this invasion who isn't a candidate for greatness, though she's hell-bent on convincing us otherwise.

Her Grammy-nominated debut, 1996's sonically sepia-toned Revival, was a benchmark record in alt-country circles. Many authenticity fetishists treasured the folkie seriousness of her roots replications, yet some were wary of the Berkelee-educated, second-generation bizzer behind them. The follow-up offers the same folk clichés with an even more austere presentation. Welch is someone who discovered old-time music in college and decided that her own sheltered life could never be worth writing about. So she names an album Hell Among the Yearlings and sings about whiskey, the devil, and the "Rock of Ages" like Mother Maybelle's long-lost granddaughter. She's a Palace sister without the boho irony.

I'm not saying someone has to have worked in a mine to sing about the experience, but if you're gonna front miner you better be able to bring it off. Welch cannot. And I can't remember the last celebrated songwriter so completely devoid of individuality. She reworks the Alan Lomax library like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy is to Cab Calloway. All the elements of folk writing are addressed, all the proper tropes capitulated, but the songs lack feeling. The hollow "Caleb Meyer" is set in the present, but begins like this: "Caleb Meyer lives alone/In them hollerin' pines/And he made a little whiskey for himself/Said it helped to pass the time." Like filmmakers who can only make movies that reference other movies, Welch doesn't write folk songs; she writes folk songs about writing folk songs. And she's not the kind of singer who can make her homages resonate. Her vocals are as anonymous as her writing is studious.

Nearly lost amid the mannered folkie fare, however, is one special moment, a song called "Honey Now." In this, the shortest track on the record, Welch leaps ahead a couple of decades for a snatch of shockingly good rockabilly, closer to a Sun session than a Stray Cat strut. Guitarist/songwriting-collaborator David Rawlings conjures the Everly Brothers at their purest and Welch gets a chance to crack a smile. Here's hoping it's a sign of things to come.

 
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