3 stars (out of 4)
The first album in eight years from Gillian Welch and her longtime partner David Rawlings went through a difficult birth. The duo wrote and abandoned many songs before settling on the 10 that make up “The Harrow & the Harvest.”
They came up with some keepers. The songs are packed with vivid details of death, despair, hollowed-out hope, sung as matters of fate in a voice tinged by melancholy but never melodrama. Each is framed by the sparsest of acoustic instrumentation, little more than guitars, banjos and harmonica played by the duo, a brilliant mini-bluegrass band. The sound is beautiful in its own way, despite the often dire subject matter. Tiny details jump out: The way Rawlings’ understated harmonies shade Welch’s voice on “Dark Turn of Mind” is strangely dreamy, almost romantic. A lyric such as “Everybody’s buying little baby clothes” takes on a malevolent tinge in “The Way it Goes.”
It’s difficult to fault the songs or the performances, but the hand’s off presentation is conservative to a fault, as if the duo were trying not to break the fine china. The thigh-slapping rhythm that nudges along “Six White Horses” is a welcome change of pace, a brief taste of jauntiness on an album that could’ve used a touch more bravado.