When Gillian Welch's debut album, Revival, appeared in 1996, some music fans questioned the singer's authenticity. How, they wondered, could someone who was born in New York City and grew up in affluent West Los Angeles have the nerve to write about being "an orphan on God's highway" or having her still torn down? Welch, who sings in a plaintive, Carter Family-style voice and wears Depression-era dresses, was obviously a good songwriter, but she seemed like a phony.
It's a ridiculous argument, of course. You don't have to be a hillbilly to sing country music, and you don't have to lose your family in a car wreck to write a beautiful song like "Orphan Girl," which Emmylou Harris covered on her Wrecking Ball album.
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Time (The Revelator), Welch's third album, has a more modern feel, and that's unfortunate. Recorded at Nashville's famous RCA Studio B, where Elvis Presley cut many of his hits and Chet Atkins invented the Nashville Sound, the album features Welch on guitar and banjo along with her partner (and producer) David Rawlings, who sings harmony and plays a mean acoustic lead guitar. But the music they play has virtually nothing in common with the many hits produced at Studio B in the 1960s and 1970s.
With a few exceptions, the songs on Time (The Revelator) are slow going, verging on tedious, with obscure lyrics in the confessional singer-songwriter mode. "My First Lover," for instance, finds Welch reminiscing about an old boyfriend, who was "tall and greasy with his long hair down/But he gets a little hazy when I think of him now." Hazy is the word for many of these songs: They're dreamlike, impressionistic, with few concrete characters or settings. Here's a baffling verse from the album's last song, a fourteen-minute dirge that seems to go on forever: "I'm an indistinguishable shade of twilight/Any second now I'm gonna turn myself on/In the blue display of the cool cathode ray/I dream a highway back to you." Come again?
"Red Clay Halo," by contrast, is an up-tempo gospel number that grabs you by the arm and leads you down the road to salvation: "Now Jordan's banks they're red and muddy/And the rolling water is wide/But I got no boat so I'll be good and muddy/When I get to the other side." And the delightful "I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll," recorded live at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium at last year's O Brother, Where Art Thou? concert, is destined to be covered by any number of bluegrass bands.
Note to Welch: Next time, just make it all up.