Gillian Welch hasn’t released a new record since 2003’s Soul Journey. This is a huge recording hiatus for any artist who isn’t Fiona Apple, and for long-term fans of the langurous, evocative, complex music she produces with collaborator David Rawlings, it’s almost intolerable. There are vague indications that a new album may be underway, but whispered rumours are small consolation.
Good news, then, that A Friend of A Friend, the new album from Dave Rawlings Machine, is in many ways the new Gillian Welch record we’ve all been waiting for. For starters, five of its nine songs are Rawlings/Welch compositions; Welch appears, too, in both the album’s artwork and its familiar vocal harmonies. But it’s unfair on Rawlings to focus on his collaborator, since what most reminds us of Welch’s records is this album’s guitar work – that is, Rawlings defines Welch’s music as much as she defines his. The only difference is who takes lead vocals.
Rawling’s voice is thinner and less express than Welch’s, but it is also more driving and straight-ahead, and this makes for a livelier experience than the typical Welch record. With the addition of Old Crow Medicine Show – meet the gang, the gang’s all here – the album becomes something of a hoedown, with a raucous version of Ryan Adams’s ‘To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)’ – which in its original version on Heartbreaker featured, er, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings – being a particular highlight. ‘I Hear Them All’ – which last featured on, er, an Old Crown Medicine Show record – is also beautifully performed, as is a mash-up of Conor Oberst’s ‘Method Acting’ with Neil Young’s ‘Cortez The Killer’. The best songs, though, are probably opener ‘Ruby’ and ‘Sweet Tooth’ – both Welch/Rawlings pieces, natch.
A Friend Of A Friend isn’t exactly an adventurous record. But it is a pretty, and expertly played, one – a tall glass of water for the parched fans of the two biggest teases in bluegrass.