CD reviews: Music that’s old, new and outside the box

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/The Aspen TimesSinger-songwriter Gillian Welch has released "The Harrow & the Harvest," her first album in eight years.

produced by David Rawlings (Acony)Gillian Welch made her reputation, beginning with her 1996 debut “Revival,” not just with her songs, but with her persona. The songs seemed to come from another age, Dust Bowl-era America, and Welch’s look – bone-thin, peasant dresses – made it appear that Welch wasn’t simply making up songs, but embodying them.But Welch was actually of this time – born in New York City, in 1967; adopted as an infant; relocated to Los Angeles (where her adoptive parents took a job writing music for “The Carol Burnette Show”) at the age of 3; attending the University of California Santa Cruz and Boston’s Berklee College of Music.Welch broke the spell, basically acknowledging that no, she didn’t step out of 1932 Appalachia, with the last song on her last album. “Wrecking Ball,” which closed the album “Soul Journey,” was a breakthrough – a semi-autobiographical number that referenced the “Santa Cruz Garden Mall,” being a Deadhead, and “playing bass under a pseudonym.” “Wrecking Ball” seems to be about plowing ahead in life and art, embracing all sorts of experiences, from musical to sexual. I like a lot of Welch’s songs, but “Wrecking Ball” is easily my favorite; had it been written in time, I would have used one of its lines – “Where the weed that I recall/ Was like a wrecking ball” – as my high school yearbook quote.Fans could use a little more personal revelation from Welch about now. “Soul Journey” was released in June 2003, and while Welch has done some work in the eight years since – learning to drum and playing drums in the throwback string group, Old Crow Medicine Show; appearing on the 2009 album “A Friend of a Friend,” by her steady partner, David Rawlings – there were no albums under Welch’s name.”The Harrow & the Harvest” offers no explanation for the eight fallow years; there is no equivalent of “Wrecking Ball,” telling, or at least hinting, at what has gone on with Welch. (Outside of the music, Welch has offered the simplest of explanations: She wrote songs, and even recorded them, and was never satisfied with the results.)What we get is a return to the original conception we had of Welch – a singer and songwriter who needs to travel back in time to find inspiration. On “The Harrow & the Harvest,” Welch – and Rawlings, who is the only other musician to appear here, singing, producing and playing guitar, banjo and harmonica – is witness to the same sorts of things she saw on her four earlier albums. It is a dark world, rural, old and faraway. It’s a world of loss – a girl who loses her innocence to guns and bad guys, who loses family and friends (just like on “Orphan Girl,” the first song on her first album). “Some girls are blessed with a dark turn of mind,” Welch sings, in what might be the most nakedly autobiographical phrase she gives us. Then she demonstrates that darkness on the incredibly vivid “The Way It Goes,” which opens, “Becky Johnson bought the farm/Put a needle in her arm.”Before hearing “The Harrow & the Harvest,” I would have said I wanted to see a new Gillian Welch upon her return, one who, as on “Wrecking Ball,” gave us a look at more modern times. But “The Harrow & the Harvest” is stunning in its freshness, its imagery and melody, Rawlings’ playing. Even after four albums of old-sounding songs, Welch can still make old sound new.

produced by Duane Lundy (Tin Ear)My introduction to Ben Sollee came when he appeared at the Wheeler Opera House, two years ago, as a member of banjoist Abigail Washburn’s Sparrow Project. Washburn’s group jumped genres – bluegrass, Appalachian gospel, Chinese folk – and Sollee followed along on every jump, even led a few of them. So I figured, here’s a musician determined to take his instrument, the cello, to places it’s never been before.Boy, did I put him in too tight a box. On his second solo album, “Inclusions,” the 20-something Kentucky native emerges as a writer and singer of atmospheric works; a visionary who uses strings in new ways (including mixing them with horns and drums); and a lyricist who draws on history and imagery to create tales like “Bible Belt,” a deep affirmation of living according to one’s one beliefs.Bonus reason to like Sollee: In 2009, he biked 330 miles to his gig at the Bonnaroo Festival, his cello strapped to his