Rawlings's last album might have been fun, but now he and Gillian Welch mean business.
From its start, it wasn't very clear if the Dave Rawlings Machine was meant to be a serious endeavor. The name dropped onto the Americana scene rather unceremoniously while fans of Gillian Welch and her musical partner David Rawlings were patiently awaiting a follow-up to 2003's acclaimed release Soul Journey. A few lucky west coast concertgoers got to see this band's first incarnation play a handful of shows. Apart from that, the nature of the Machine seemed a little fuzzy. So when my wife and I quite accidentally ran into Dave Rawlings himself in the lobby of a local auditorium one night (he and Welch were supporting Bright Eyes at the time) we put the question to him: What exactly is the Dave Rawlings Machine? The guitarist/singer-songwriter, who was ever so polite and giving of his time, shrugged off the existence of the Machine as nothing more than an excuse for a couple of musician friends to jam with one another. He most certainly didn't portray it to be a vehicle for serious songwriting and recording.
Two years later, it was the Dave Rawlings Machine moniker that offered a helping hand in allowing Welch and Rawlings to break through their writer's block. The resulting album plays out like the soundtrack to a friend-filled studio shin-dig; part covers, part originals, part previously-recorded originals co-written by Rawlings, and a prominent presence from members of Old Crow Medicine Show. Even the album's title, A Friend of a Friend, sounds loose and informal. But as laid-back as the album was, it had done the trick. A Friend of a Friend garnered some modest acclaim and Welch and Rawlings were finally able to kick their dry spell. Two years later, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings reclaimed their folksy brass ring with the widely-lauded The Harrow and the Harvest.
With Nashville Obsolete, it appears that the Dave Rawlings Machine has graduated to yet another level. Where before the band were kicking around some covers while letting their friends get nice and cozy with the mics, Nashville Obsolete features only original material and finds Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch very much in charge. The lineup of the Machine, which was likely supposed to be a fluid thing in the first place, is Rawlings and Welch being buoyed by Punch Brothers bassist Paul Kowert, former Old Crow guitarist Willie Watson, violinist Brittany Haas and Jordan Tice on the mandolin (if you got to see the Dave Rawlings Machine tour with Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones as the mandolin player, he just gets a special thanks in Nashville Obsolete's liner notes). The mood is far more shaded than Friend and a handful of the songs are pretty long by folk standards. Just imagine their Bright Eyes/Neil Young medley as if it were a Rawlings/Welch original and you're ready to embrace Nashville Obsolete as the masterpiece of American(a) gothic that it is.
If releases like the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Though? signaled a resurgence in old-timey folk forms, Nashville Obsolete represents a new step in the genre's natural progression. Concise songs and brisk tempos take a back seat to an elastic ebb and flow that allows Rawlings to further stretch his improvisational abilities on the guitar as well as the borderline unorthodox vocal harmonies that Rawlings and Welch are fond of testing. First track "The Weekend" embodies much of what makes the album tick. The song's tempo is in absolutely no rush and Welch's drum performance is as minimalist as it gets. Over five-plus minutes, Rawlings solos at least three times over Neil Young Harvest-era strings. The chorus is nothing more complicated than a few "whoah-oh"s sung over a three chord sequence. The lyrics of the verses wander in and out of reality with the following cast of characters:
You want the details
What can I say
There's the ballerina
The foreign cartel
The opera singer
The southern belle
They've all got something strange and new
They've all got something, but not like you
Nashville Obsolete's first four tracks absolutely revel in this strange place where things just aren't all that well down on the farm. "Don't go loving short haired women / They're gonna leave you crying / After thinking it was all in fun," the duo warns on "Short Haired Woman Blues", the album's likely answer to "A Man Needs a Maid", (or in this case, make sure your maid has long hair). At close to eleven minutes in length, you might think that "The Trip" is the album's centerpiece, and this can be debated. Rawlings's spoken word delivery on the verses suggest that it's more of a stream-of-consciousness piece about that travel than a concise tune. But the chorus nicely offsets all of that by advising you to "take a trip wherever your conscience has to roam." Rawlings and Welch use a few subtle tricks to make sure the song doesn't overstay its welcome, like Welch stretching her vocal range towards the end as Rawlings half sings and half moans that "your harmonicas blown, baby!"
"Bodysnatchers" is probably one of the most morose songs that the two songwriters have ever written. On top of the tense guitar lines and vocal harmonies you have Haas's fiddle while sounds positively disembodied. These "Bodysnatchers", are they a physical menace or the sign of a spiritual crisis? Rawling's eerie falsetto beckoning the bodysnatcher to "get back, get back" sounds too genuinely panicky to provide an answer. This thick, heavy mood is able to recede for "The Last Pharaoh" and "Candy", the former sounding like one of the pair's more bluegrass-inclined numbers albeit in a moderate tempo. "Candy" carries echoes of "Sweet Tooth" from the Machine's first album. "Whose that coming down the aisle, is it Candy? What makes everybody smile, is it Candy?" "Candy" suddenly seems less desirable when the question turns too "There's something stick on the floor, is it Candy?" Then, "Somebody wants a little more, is it Candy?" Uh-oh. This could be any number of vices.
The final track "Pilgrim (You Can't Go Home)" revisits the theme of travel that "The Trip" set in motion. If "The Trip" encourages one to get out and explore, "Pilgrim" cautiously asks "Where you gonna run? / Tell me, where will you roam?", suggesting that the pilgrim doesn't have many options after having a return home ruled out for them. At 7:57, "Pilgrim (You Can't Go Home)" is Nashville Obsolete's second-longest track. It also neatly sums up why this album can safely be proclaimed as a bold step forward for the ever-broadening world of folk/Americana/newgrass. It plants a stick in the ground where old-fashioned lonesome melodies are able to join forces with the freewheeling liberties of outside musical genres. Supreme musicianship cuts through a production job that is neither minimal nor ornate. Dave Rawlings, Gillian Welch, and the rest of their cohorts know full well that for music to survive it needs to keep pushing ahead. You can visit your home, but you can't dwell there. Nashville Obsolete is already a few steps ahead.