Dave Rawlings Machine – A Friend of a Friend – Acony ACNY-0908, 41:41 ****:
(Dave Rawlings – vocals, guitar, banjo, tic-tac bass, percussion, celeste, producer; Gillian Welch – vocals, guitar, percussion; Ketch Secor – bass vocals (tracks 1, 6 and 8), vocals (tracks 2 and 7), fiddle (tracks 1, 2, 6 and 7), harmonica (track 8); Willie Watson – vocals (tracks 1 and 6), guitar (tracks 1, 2, 6-8); Morgan Jahnig – bass (tracks 1, 2, 6-8); Kevin Hayes – guitjo (tracks 1, 2, 6-8); Benmont Tench – organ (track 1), piano (track 6), Wurlizter organ (track 9); Nathaniel Walcott – trumpet (track 8), organ (track 2); Karl Himmel – drums (track 9); Jimmie Haskell – string arrangements)
Singer/guitarist/songwriter/producer Dave Rawlings should be familiar to anyone attracted to alt-country, neo-traditional folk or the catch-all Americana genre. Although A Friend of a Friend is Rawlings’ first foray as a frontman, he’s been Gillian Welch’s longtime friend, collaborator and musical partner since they met while students at the Berklee College of Music and has been featured on her albums beginning with Welch’s inaugural release, the 1996 effort Revival. Subsequently, Rawlings has worked with Conor Oberst/Bright Eyes, Old Crow Medicine Show and Ryan Adams and has lent his formidable guitar skills to projects by The Wallflowers, Ani DiFranco, Robyn Hitchcock and more.
Dave Rawlings Machine has been in operation as a live act since 2006. Anyone lucky enough to catch one of those performances already has a good idea what to expect on A Friend of a Friend, a collection of originals, co-written tunes and covers played with an assortment of acquaintances in a friendly front porch atmosphere. The most notable contributor – besides, of course, Rawlings – is Welch. She adds her harmony vocals and guitar to all nine tracks and co-wrote five.
Rawlings’ approach is similar to what he has done with Welch, which makes sense. But here Rawlings has the time and the space to display his talents as songwriter, musician and producer, thus providing an attenuated sonic canvas that encompasses folk, country, pop, old-timey music, bluegrass and a seventies-styled singer/songwriter stance.
The Rawlings/Welch ode to lingering love, "Ruby," is an effective opener that has a Southern California/Laurel Canyon country-rock vibe akin to Gram Parsons or Michael Nesmith. Rawlings’ reedy but compassionate tenor evokes a conventional but also slightly abstract viewpoint, exemplified by his lyrics. "Just like an old-time telegraph man," Rawlings sings, "I came here with a simple job to do/’Cause the news coming down the wire says/That your world’s on fire/And I’m trying to get a message through to you." The arrangement blends soulful touches with traditional tints. Tom Petty keyboardist Benmont Tench contributes understated organ while Old Crow Medicine Show members Ketch Secor, Willie Watson, Morgan Jahnig and Kevin Hayes furnish mountain music harmonies and instrumental backing. Arranger Jimmie Haskell – who has done string arrangements for hundreds of artists ranging from Elvis Presley to Steely Dan – supplies a quintessential Nashville backdrop.
The centerpiece is a ten-minute medley that merges Conor Oberst’s Bright Eyes composition "Method Acting" with Neil Young’s "Cortez the Killer." Rawlings peels his adaptation of both tunes to bare essentials, supplementing he and Welch’s clear voices with lucid, supportive acoustic guitars. Rawlings foregoes Oberst’s declarative denunciation in favor of quiet despondency, emphasizing vulnerability rather than anger. In much the same way, Rawlings and Welch turn Young’s tale of European imperialism from a lengthy electric excursion into a poetic commemoration to people lost and forgotten. The two-tune fusion is also a supple showcase for Rawlings’ expert guitar picking, with several instrumental bridges that any aspiring guitarist should study.
Old Crow Medicine Show provides a potent Appalachian backing on "To Be Young (Is to Be High, Is to Be Sad)," which Rawlings co-authored with Ryan Adams and was initially offered up on Adams’ 2000 effort Heartbreaker. Rawlings rearranges the piece as a bluegrass number with acoustic instruments and stamps the song with a convivial resonance. Secor’s fiddle and Hayes’ guitjo (a combo banjo and guitar) accent Rawlings’ reflection on a young man’s troubles and his sampling of illicit excesses. Rawlings follows with a sensitively contemplative "I Hear Them All," which Rawlings co-penned with Secor. It can be found on the 2006 Old Crow Medicine Show outing Big Iron World, which Rawlings also produced. Rawlings’ version jettisons the original stringband setting and instead utilizes a solo interpretation with just Rawlings accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. The folk shading enlivens the Dylanesque spiritualism about how rich are connected to poor, war is entangled with peace and how all societies, despite differences, are linked.
The Rawlings/Welch cuts delve through an extensive swatch of standard American music. The diverting and delightful "Sweet Tooth" is a stripped-down folk affair with only Welch and Rawlings’ close-knit harmonies and their dual acoustic guitars. The hard-luck narrative "How’s About You" has a depression-era country rollick highlighted by Secor’s fiddle and Tench’s piano flourishes. While the lyrics have a 1930s affectation, lyrics such as "I used to have a dollar/I’m gonna have a dime some day" also carry a contemporary connection relevant to vanished jobs, foreclosed homes and shuttered factories. Country shuffler "It’s Too Easy" is an upbeat track with a carefree mannerism that is the record’s most vigorous moment. When Secor’s scratchy fiddle takes off its impossible not to start moving your feet. The break-of-day meditation "Bells of Harlem" concludes the 41-minute A Friend of a Friend with unaffected, lithesome chords that are delicately accentuated via Tench’s Wurlitzer and Haskell’s lovely strings. The song ends in a beautiful benediction as the players fade out and the string section is brought front and center.
There’s an oxygenated honesty inherent throughout Rawlings music. Whether he is singing about broken dreams ("How’s About You") or sugar addiction ("Sweet Tooth"), there is no artifice or hustling for mainstream success. He may swirl from darkness ("I Hear Them All") to light ("Its Too Easy") but Rawlings always focuses on performance and emotions, leaving others to hype themselves into stardom. In the same sense, Rawlings also uses a moderate but proficient style as a producer. He maintains a free and spry perception that yields an intimate live outlook instead of an overly glossy studio presentation: fine points and subtlety surface on each listen, conveying the attention to detail that went into the recording process.
2. To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High)
3. I Hear Them All
4. Method Acting/Cortez the Killer
5. Sweet Tooth
6. How’s About You
7. It’s Too Easy
8. Monkey and the Engineer
9. Bells of Harlem
— Doug Simpson