Ghosts in the Machine

It’s all about the power of the mix, in this case a mix of two voices. There have been times when the pairing of Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings has been a bit too funereal for my tastes. As the one time managing editor of Stereophile’s Guide to Home Theater Michael Metzger once blurted out during a quiet moment at a Welch show, “Who died? I didn’t know I was going to a funeral!” A number of murderous glances warmed his cheeks. Yet later in the show, when the pair upped the tempo to something approaching a spirited ballad, there was a collective exhale even among the Welch cultists followed by enthusiastic applause. I thought at the time that while Rawlings and particularly Welch have always been serious devotees and practitioners of the bluegrass lament (think the great Hazel Dickens), sprinkling in uptempo numbers might broaden their audience and make their shows less like a graveside service. Having said all that this pair of accomplished downers have a fiercely loyal following who like to get gothic. Even the cover shot on this record is meant to look like a ghostly daguerreotype.

Here on the Dave Rawlings Machine’s latest, Nashville Obsolete, a 7-song long EP or very short album that is the second Machine record after 2009’s A Friend of a Friend, it’s Dave’s name on the record and his voice that leads the harmonies. His musical partner and life mate stays in the background and plays guitar and drums, and what a difference that makes! Given equal weight in the mix with his voice is his guitar. And while the sepia tones are here, of course, this is mere brooding and not outright sadness. Some the lyrics have the appealing air of a murder ballad about them:

“Banjos ring and chickens squall and little babies crow/ The winter leaves and the spring unwinds/ And summer comes again you know/ Pink is the color of my true love’s dress and black is the color of her heart/ But I could never leave old Virginny and so we’ll never part/ Ebony face ebony nails ebony coffin on the rails/ Movin south C.O.D. going home to mother/ Some said for valor for glory for treasure or for pride/ But sometimes brother hates brother.” (From “The Trip”)

And believe it or not, even rock ’n’ roll, a musical flavor and attitude that I’ve always suspected that Rawlings has a touch of somewhere in his soul, even crops up, at least lyrically.

“Or if rock and roll is more your thing/ Go ahead and wear the black/ Chaos needs another king/ A pillar of smoke who don’t look back.” (from “Pilgrim (You Can’t Go Home))”

Despite the slightly sunnier outlook, this is old-timey, mountain folk music brought down to the valley, or in this case, into the backstreets of Nashville, by a pair of neo-country classicists addicted to tears—or at least deep reflection and occasional weeping. But they do know their stuff. In “The Last Pharoah,” which is almost cheerful in spots, Rawlings guitar ends up sounding very like that of the great Doc Watson.

Another interesting twist is that nearly all the tunes have tasteful and tasty string arrangements by Rawlings that are modern in approach but also nod in a good way towards Nashville Sound string arrangements of the past. The voice of Brittany Haas’ solo fiddle entwines effectively in the 11 minute min-epic, “The Trip.” Other guests include Punch Brothers bassist Paul Kowert and Willie Watson from Old Crow Medicine Show on guitar and vocals. Jordan Tice has taken over the mandolin playing, a spot held on the last Machine tour by John Paul Jones who gets a thank you here in the liner notes. While bubbly is still a long way off for these two, the adjustment to the mix, with Rawlings fronting the band and Welch singing harmony is a welcome re-balancing of this pair of Americana originals.