The Birth Of A Crossover Star

Lori Leibovich reviews Gillian Welch's album "Revival".

By Lori Leibovich

Published April 22, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

She lives in Opryland, but says she's not a country singer. Her songs seem to spring directly from the Iris Dement/Lucinda Williams school of stark storytelling, yet she cites Camper Van Beethoven, REM and the Pixies as influences. On her sparkling debut album "Revival," 28-year-old songwriter Gillian Welch, a Los Angeles native, establishes herself as a gifted musician who defies easy categorization. And "Revival" is a celebration of her singularity.

Producer T-Bone Burnett molds Welch's varied styles into a polished, unpretentious whole. The ten songs sketch vivid portraits using exceptionally lucid vocals that alternately pack a reeling punch and a loving embrace.

It might be tempting to peg the sparse, twangy "Revival" as country. But after a few listenings, rich layers of bluegrass, folk, blues and
rock unfold, to reveal songs so delicately chiseled and refined they prove to be only distant cousins of mainstream country's stylized sounds.

Welch made a splash at this year's South by Southwest music festival in Austin, garnering strong reviews for her spare, organic arrangements and ethereal vocals. Though she was billed as a fledgling in Texas, folks in Nashville have already recognized her songwriting prowess -- Emmylou Harris, the Nashville Bluegrass Band and Tim O'Brien have recorded her songs.

Welch mesmerizes with her emotional range; she can sing with the vulnerability of a child, the sass of an adolescent, the dignity of an old woman or the flat-out sex appeal of a nightclub chanteuse -- on the sexy, Patsy Cline-ish ballad "Paper Wings," for example, she conjures images of an anguished singer bathed in a single floodlight, seducing a small-town audience.

The essence of "Revival," though, is Welch's commanding simplicity. She launches the album with two wrenching country-influenced songs, "Orphan Girl" (which appeared on Harris' Grammy-award winning album "Wrecking Ball") and "Annabelle," an elegy to a dead child. Both tracks feel like sophisticated campfire songs; they're so earthy and haunting, you expect to hear crickets chirping in the background. And on "Orphan Girl," when Welch confesses, "I am an orphan/On God's highway/But I'll share my troubles/If you go my way," you can almost feel her body trembling. Her
partner, David Rawlings, masterfully harmonizes on these cuts, highlighting Welch's soothing voice without overpowering it.

Blues numbers like "Tear My Stillhouse Down" and "Pass You By" prove that Welch can belt with the best of them, but she's at her strongest when "Revival" is at its most pared-down. "Acony Bell," "Only One and Only" and the gospel-tinged "By the Mark" were recorded on the same lo-fi equipment once used by Hank Williams, their spare arrangements providing a flawless backdrop to Welch's lilting voice. Rawlings' angelic harmonies flesh out "By the Mark," an aching psalm of deliverance ("I will know my savior when I come to him/By the mark where the nails have been"); the exquisite "Only One and Only" is a sober love song, with a sleepy, acoustic guitar that saunters alongside Welch's luminous vocals.

Welch's recording label, Almo Sounds, is honoring Welch's many musical sensibilities by releasing the acoustic-based "Revival" first to public and college radio stations, then to Triple A "Americana" stations and finally to cutting-edge country stations. It will be interesting to see which bin this brilliantly iconoclastic album ends up in, and whether Welch can capture the expansive audience she deserves.

Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

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