Black Music Matters Festival

Gillian Welch

Hell Among the Yearlings – 1998 (Almo Sounds)

Reviewed by Bill Sacks

The second installment of Gillian Welch's adventures in musical authenticity places less emphasis on gospel themes (and, coincidentally, on elaborate narratives) than 1996's "Revival," favoring instead a Southern Appalachian blues and dirge tradition whose roots have become altogether clearer to younger generations since the reissue of the "Anthology of American Folk Music" last year.

One consequence is a plurality of her new lyrics shy from the specificities of anguish and redemption which may be her deepest mine as a writer. Another is that the wider stylistic variety is a challenge to the limits of her vocal phrasing. In her best work, Welch has used a signature tentativeness in her singing as a source of tension; but that tension is a fragile thing, and not yet evenly suited to blue rounds, rockabilly (a short dalliance which owes more to the spirit of the early '70's Rolling Stones than to the Sun masters) and the quiet, mournful testimonies of "My Morphine" and "Whiskey Girl" which are this new collection's strongest offerings.

The overriding tension of this record is strung between scope and depth, a tension which speaks to an admirable ambition and a potentially crucial time of travel along brambled paths of American song.