Short Cuts

Gillian Welch
Hell Among the Yearlings
(Almo Sounds)

Revival, Gillian Welch's brilliant 1996 debut album, had an old-time, hardwood simplicity about it: The two voices and two acoustic guitars did the majority of the work but were supported on several songs by bass and drums. For her followup, Hell Among the Yearlings, Welch strips things down even more and burrows even further into the sounds and temperament of traditional folk music. Her two years of touring with only her songwriting partner, the stellar guitarist David Rawlings, must have convinced her that the two of them could handle things just fine. The result is another durable, topnotch album.

Welch and Rawlings' well-crafted writing shows that they've thoroughly learned the lessons taught by the likes of the Carter Family and the Stanley Brothers. "Caleb Meyer" opens the CD with a bloody story of rape told over a driving, bluegrass-tinged melody. "The Devil Had a Hold of Me" and "One Morning" are back-porch hootenanny material. For these songs Welch plays banjo and Rawlings' acoustic guitar-picking fills in a surprising amount of space. There are several woozy, heavy-lidded country songs here, including "My Morphine" and "Good Til Now," which highlight Welch's full, throaty voice and Rawlings' easygoing harmonies.

The unpolished, pickup session sound of the '50s-ish rocker "Honey Now," the only song on the CD with drums, falls a little flat. Only one other cut features more instruments than two guitars or a guitar and banjo; producer T Bone Burnett plays piano and Hammond organ on the lovely, forlorn "Whiskey Girl."

As anyone who has listened to old-time country and bluegrass knows, the subject matter of the songs is often bleak and gruesome. Following suit Welch sings about dying, sin, liquor, and coal mining, among other things. The stories aren't especially happy, but the melodies are quite pretty and the songs are beautifully performed. For Hell Among the Yearlings, Welch has caught the spirit of another era without being the least bit gimmicky.

-- Theresa Everline

Vanessa Trien
Wash Away
(VT Productions)

On this sparkling debut, Boston-based folk popster Vanessa Trien offers a compelling argument for the dividends of perseverance. Nearly five years in the making, Wash Away is the sort of disc destined to win major-label attention. Its 11 songs, most of them elegant ballads, are somehow both instantly likable and enduring.

Without ever sounding derivative, Trien has incorporated enough stylistic elements to avoid the dreaded Disease of the Earnest that afflicts so many young folkies. "If I Were" offers a seamless blend of folk and country that showcases the laid-back charms of Trien's rhythm section, drummer Philip Antoniades and bassist John Davis. "Wide Angle Lens" is propelled by the swaggering fretwork of guitarist-producer Andy Kalt and a syncopated beat that shows traces of samba. Kris Delmhorst's mournful cello lends a mournful air to "Under the Surface." Elsewhere Trien dips into Latin jazz (the shimmering "Put It in My Pocket") and unabashed pop ("Not Too Late").

The big draw here is the songwriter's own lovely alto, which soars gracefully over the subdued arrangements. While her voice has shadings of other singers -- the husky allure of Suzanne Vega, say, or the somber phrasing of Natalie Merchant -- she never seems to be pushing. Instead the melodies arise organically from her pliant vocal lines.

And fortunately Trien has plenty to say. Her meditations on desire and emotional isolation are sharply observed, and she exhibits an engaging -- if increasingly rare -- knack for self-effacement. "Hero For a Day" casts her as the kind of chronic doubter who favors Annie Hall-ism over angst. "Today I'm the sexiest woman alive," she croons, "but tomorrow I might take a dive to the ten worst-dressed." It's nice to know that there are still female songwriters out there in this era of Lilith empowerment who can gently mock their own doubt. Then again, Trien's talents are clearly sufficient to withstand a few mere fashion faux pas. (VT Productions, P.O. Box 380525, Cambridge, MA 02238-0525)

-- Steven Almond

 
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