Starved of new music from the delightful but stingy pen of Gillian Welch, the new album by musical partner Dave Rawlings and his Machine seems like the next best thing – but it’s not exactly a barrel of laughs. Nashville Obsolete offers just seven songs, all bar two of which creep along at snail’s pace, by and large echoing the mood of the dour quartet on the cover who look like they’ve just seen a ghost, especially Welch in her ankle-length antique white dress and an expression of sheer terror on her face.
While 2009’s A Friend Of A Friend, Rawling’s first offering beyond the shadow of Welch, was a relatively sprightly affair, Nashville Obsolete is rambling and oblique, troubled and less easy to befriend. The songs are long and loquacious, most extending beyond the five minute mark with ‘The Trip’ more than twice that, its verses sung-spoken as a weary lament that is only allayed by a gorgeous lilting chorus to which Welch adds impeccable harmony. I particularly liked the line: ‘There’s a picture of an old black man in a beaver hat. He wears a hidden smile and a pair of white spats.’
The tenor of opener ‘Weekend’, too, is lightened by its chorus, but don’t expect Rawlings and Welch to be anticipating the end of the week like, say, Eddie Cochran. Their Saturdays and Sundays aren’t much fun really, and neither are women with short hair, whom Rawlings advises against falling for in the slightly spooky ‘Short Haired Woman Blues’.
The sense of doom is relieved only by ‘The Last Pharoah’, at 3.30 the shortest song on offer, which at least skips along with a rhythmic pulse, and the throwaway, somewhat silly, romp, ‘Candy’, with its ambiguous insinuation that Rawlings and Welch might be singing about a sweet or a girl or, indeed, a sweet girl. A jig of the kind that this pair can rattle off in their sleep, it’s a companion piece to ‘Sweet Tooth’ from Rawlings’ earlier album which I actually played for my bemused dentist a year or two ago.
The record closes on another atmospherically unhappy saga, ‘Pilgrim’, and while there’s a chance that Rawlings is being tongue-in-cheek in his desolation, the mood throughout does seem to echo the pair’s disenchantment with both relationships and the world in which we live. Welch, of course, co-wrote all the material and is adept at conjuring up a similar ambience, usually suggestive of struggles borne by dirt-poor Americans in the Great Depression. Hereabouts, although a keening old fiddle often adds to the gloom, the despair seems a tad more current.
Fortunately, that unique Rawlings signature guitar sound remains intact. To my ears his flatpicking on frets high up the scale sounds at times like a mandolin with single strings or, on the lower notes, like a fretted cello. I am hard pressed to think of any other acoustic player whose tone is so immediately recognisable, as it was here from the very first notes of ‘The Weekend’. I would guess, too, that he has a few John Fahey albums in his collection.
Rawlings and his Machine are touring the US right now, with Welch as part of the band alongside Paul Kowert on bass, Brittnay Hass on fiddle, Willie Watson on guitar and Jordan Tice on mandolin, though mandolin duties are occasionally shared with John Paul Jones. Welch plays the drums, as she does – sparingly – on the new album. For the sake of any manic depressives in the audience, I can only hope the shows offer a broader range of material, or that the live renditions of these new songs are spruced up a bit.
It is now four year’s since Welch’s The Harrow And The Harvest, so we’re overdue another from her which I anticipate eagerly. On the pictures in Nashville Obsolete’s booklet, some of which were taken by the noted photographer Henry Diltz, it looks like she’s dyed a few strands at the front of her hair blonde. I doubt she’ll cut it short though.