Gillian Welch paints portraits with her voice -- images in somber shades with weighty splashes and dour overtones. It's quite a moody mix. And while she claims her fourth album, Soul Journey, is the "sunniest" she's ever made, its slow and sparse sound belies her intentions.
Whatever vibe you may get from it, though, this is a wonderful set of acoustic folk, country, and blues. Welch, who garnered acclaim for her bluegrass performances on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, has evolved her folk sound with each album: from bluegrass to country to rock to blues, keeping elements of each in the next progression. Soul Journey explores it all. Her vocals and guitar are complemented by guitarist, vocalist, and producer David Rawlings, whose harmonies on the country rocker "Wayside/Back in Time" are a perfect fit for Welch's drawl. While Welch's voice -- which has echoes of Emmylou Harris in it -- is her most developed talent, she takes some fair turns as a guitarist on the country-blues traditional "Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor," which sounds as if it could have been recorded in 1933 at some mysterious Mississippi crossroads. And the folky "Look at Miss Ohio" shows a flair for wit: "I want to do right, but not right now," Welch sings with a touch of sarcasm.
And while the serial repetition of the chorus "One monkey don't stop the show" on "One Monkey" may be overkill, it blends with the minor chords of the guitar to produce a hypnotic effect. This is Gillian's groove -- a slow burn that hints at sadness while never overtly dwelling on it. Though she kicks up the tempo on a couple of songs, such as the banjo-driven twang of "No One Knows My Name," most of these tracks simmer at a low temperature, perfect for dwelling in misery and cursing the fates. Welch's somber journey may not be easy, but it is a trip worth taking.
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