This album changes the Welch-Rawlings billing, and adds some fresh touches, but it also keeps the duo's distinctive sound in tact.
"We’re a band, a little band," Gillian Welch has often commented, with regard to the music that she and her guitar-wizard partner David Rawlings have produced under Welch’s name since their 1996 debut album Revival. Fans of the pair, in particular those who’ve seen them in concert, will know just how accurate this assessment is. Although Welch generally sings lead, Welch and Rawlings are, in the truest sense, a duo, with a symbiotic rapport. Ostensibly Rawlings’s first solo album, A Friend of A Friend changes the billing but in fact keeps the sound and set-up very much in tact. (No, the title does not herald a Foo Fighters cover, though that’s a song that these guys could probably make a very good job of.)
In any case, a new recording from Welch and Rawlings is long overdue. Although they’ve kept up a solid touring schedule and appeared on a number of other people’s albums (most memorably and notably, perhaps, on Robyn Hitchcock’s 2004 Spooked) they haven’t actually released a record since 2003’s Soul Journey. That album -- with its airier, lighter, and less austere tone -- suggested a loosening up of Welch and Rawlings’s methodology, and that approach continues on this new release. Rawlings sings lead throughout, but Welch is very much a presence, getting a co-writing credit on most of the original songs and contributing the distinctive close harmonies that define their sound. But the album also benefits from the presence of Rawlings’s exuberant protégés Old Crow Medicine Show, whose boisterous contributions accentuate the livelier atmosphere. (The duo also further expand their "little band" to include organist Benmont Tench, Karl Himmel, and Nate Walcott of Bright Eyes.) If the end result feels a little less substantial than some of Welch and Rawlings’s best work, it makes up for that in generosity of spirit and sheer likeability.
The album’s celestial opener "Ruby", with its twangy guitar, fiddle, organ and subtle strings, sets the bar high. A deft appropriation of Rapunzel imagery, built around Rawlings’s aching request of "Let down your golden hair for me to climb", the track could be a lost gem culled from Return of the Grievous Angel or Music From Big Pink. Old Crow Medicine Show help to turn "To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)" - the Rawlings co-write first heard on Ryan Adams’s Heartbreaker (2000) - into an enjoyable rootsy stomp. Rawlings takes the quiet but urgent protest strum "I Hear A Call" (a co-write from OCMS’s Big Iron World ) solo, but Welch returns to harmonise on the next track, a mesmerising 9-minute amalgam of Conor Oberst’s "Method Acting" and Neil Young’s "Cortez the Killer" (with Rawlings singing the latter in a voice uncannily close to Young’s). With its intricate guitar-work and stately, tranced-out tone, this centrepiece track would have slotted seamlessly onto the classic Time (The Revelator) (2001).
The album’s lighter songs are nicely handled, and suit Rawlings’s reedy voice well. The droll "Sweet Tooth" is charm itself, the jaunty, old-timey "How’s About You" is Rawling’s Hank Williams moment, and an affectionate, fun rendering of Jesse Fuller’s "Monkey and the Engineer" takes the song back to its roots. "It’s Too Easy" is less distinguished, but the elegant "Bells of Harlem" -- embellished, like “Ruby”, by a lovely, understated string arrangement by veteran composer Jimmie Haskell -- brings the album to a beautiful and heart-warming close. With its titular bells heralding a collective as well as a personal celebration, the track seems very much a song of the Obama moment, but its Dylan-esque imagery is, thankfully, general enough to thwart too reductive a reading. As Rawlings’s awed narrator steps out into "the dawn, the break of day… / tears of the past forgotten", the mood is simply one of long-awaited redemption and release.
A Friend of a Friend probably won’t assuage the doubters who find Rawlings and Welch’s work to be a contrivance: roots music without the "real" country roots. But questions of "authenticity" pale when listening to this thoroughly appealing album, a record that, as always, fully demonstrates Welch and Rawlings’s love and respect for the musical traditions they’ve immersed themselves in. At once fresh and familiar, this is an album you welcome in with gratitude and pleasure. Like a friend, indeed.