GILLIAN WELCH at the Phoenix Concert Theatre (410 Sherbourne), tonight (Thursday, August 9). $19.50. 416-323-1251. Rating: NNNNN
wouldn't you know it? just as producer T-Bone Burnett gets hot, Gillian Welch decides to make her first roots recording without him.Of course, neither of them could've predicted that the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack recording that they shaped together would be such a phenomenal success. What they did know, however, was that the time had come for Welch and her long-time musical partner, David Rawlings, to strike out on their own.
The Rawlings-produced Time (The Revelator) album -- released on their newly formed Acony Records label and distributed by Stony Plain in Canada -- doesn't sound radically different from the two previous Burnett jobs, 96's Revival and 98's Hell Among The Yearlings.
Time (The Revelator) has that same strange creak of a record that could've been cut on the floor of a Dust Bowl-era dime store. The cover photograph was shot in colour this time, but the sound of Welch and Rawlings still seems to be in stark black-and-white.
"We tried a little bit of recording with T-Bone," explains Welch from her Nashville home, "but it seemed like David and I needed to see what we could do ourselves.
"We'd got an incredible two-part course from T-Bone, and it was time we applied those lessons to assess our own abilities.
"The whole time we were in the studio I kept thinking, "I bet T-Bone would know a better way of doing this.' But there's a certain honesty of saying, "This is the best record we know how to make.' There's no unseen hands or unfair advantage involved."
While there's only so much you can do in committing vocals and guitar to tape, what has changed is the directness of the sound.
Whereas Welch's past work employed state-of-the-art technology to suggest the otherworldly ambience of a dusty old 78 rpm Appalachian disc, Time (The Revelator) puts you in the room with two people harmonizing over buzzing strings. It's precisely that real sense of humans singing and playing that gave the music of O Brother its striking appeal.
So, funnily enough, by moving away from Burnett, Welch and Rawlings have actually gotten closer to his concept of capturing the beauty of imperfection.
"When you hear someone playing a real instrument in a room, it doesn't just hit you on an emotional level. The sound has a physical effect on you, too. I think it's been a while since people experienced that. It's a true sound, and that's a powerful thing."
Perhaps the most promising development of all is in the songwriting, which veers off from the typical verse-chorus-verse narratives into more impressionistic, non-linear terrain. Suddenly, fine art grad Welch, who studied composition at Boston's esteemed Berklee School of Music, no longer needs to conjure images of freight trains and backwoods stills. Her connection to the past is implicit in mysterious modal excursions like the album's sprawling closer, I Dream A Highway.
Clocking in at nearly 15 minutes, the surreal epic is unique in Welch's cannon. She's even having difficulty getting her own head around it.
"What exactly went on there would be hard for me to describe," wonders Welch, "other than to say it was a very intuitive, almost trance-like session.
"Dave and I had never played the song through before we tried recording it, so we had no idea how long it might be. We did it three times, with each take progressively slower and longer.
"The first performance is the one we kept, but I don't even think of that as a "performance,' because it was my first time singing those words. Even after we got it down, it was hard to know exactly what we had. I'd have to say it's one of the most exciting things I've ever done."