Gillian Welch’s accessibility to fans of folk, country, and rock reminds me of Emmylou Harris, another genre-crossing singer/songwriter with a great, soulful voice.
It’s tempting to say O Brother, Where Art Thou? since Welch appears in the film. But the mood she invokes here feels more black and white. The music would be at home in Peter Bogdanovich’s stark classic, The Last Picture Show.
Gillian Welch and her musical partner/guitarist David Rawlings are a package deal. They write songs and perform together under their respective names, as well as Dave Rawlings Machine. Released in 2003, Soul Journey marks the fourth album under Welch’s name and represents something of a departure in that it features more electric instruments and a lighter disposition than her previous work.
The album has something of a split personality. Typically memorable and introspective songs such “Look at Miss Ohio,” “No One Knows My Name,” and “Wayside/Back in Time” feel familiar to and stand proudly among Welch’s best material. (Indeed, the line “I wanna do right but not right now” from “Look at Miss Ohio,” remains unforgettable.) But some of the other tunes—for example, “One Monkey” and “I Made a Lover’s Prayer”—feel more like ideas than fully realized songs even if they’re meant to be lighter and more fun. The rocking “Wrecking Ball” provides a rousing close to the 10-track set.
Welch and Rawlings are very serious about vinyl. Rather than work with a third-party reissue label on their back catalog, the pair rolls their own on their label Acony Records. To do so, they acquired a Neumann VMS-80 cutting lathe, then rebuilt and restored it over a multi-year period. Rawlings reportedly took such a deep dive that he auditioned different cutter heads to ensure the sound they wanted would get into the grooves of their LPs.
Acony’s Soul Journey reissue marks the album’s debut on vinyl. The LP is 100% analog mastered direct from the original master tapes. (Stephen Marcussen of Marcussen Mastering in Los Angeles received the mastering credit.) It’s beautifully recorded, with achingly gorgeous vocals and strikingly pure guitar and string tones. You can easily hear (and feel) the bodies of the instruments and the strings. The drum kit provides big, vividly present punctuation, and Welch’s vocals come across as intimate and evocative. This is really other-level stuff.
Sonically, the CD serves as the only apt comparison but it’s really no contest. While the disc sounds good, the increase in musical information, instrumental detail, and vocal textures on the vinyl LP prove nothing short of startling. It delivers a whole new experience, and one that’s much more visceral and emotionally impactful.
Welch and Rawlings’ meticulous attention to every detail of their vinyl releases pays off (once again) in packaging and quality. Everything about the LP—from the stellar “tip-on” gatefold jacket with lyrics printed on the inside to the flat, dead-quiet, regular-weight vinyl pressed at QRP—is beautifully boutique. Analog reissues don’t get much better.
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