GILLIAN WELCH AND DAVID RAWLINGS
All The Good Times (Acony)
THE MILK CARTON KIDS
Live From Lincoln Theatre (Anti)
Here are two little gifts of lockdown. Or, a mix of what we did on our holidays/confinement and here’s something I prepared earlier. Or, the simplest pleasures: two sets of two voices and two guitars to you.
Actually, you could just call both of these excellent appetisers on the Americana menu.
There’s a big package of home demos and raw recordings coming from Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, under their Gillian Welch banner (i.e. the stuff with Welch on lead voice and Rawlings on lead guitar) through the second half of this year, beginning on Friday with a digital release of Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs Vol 1., with Volumes 3 and 4 to follow every couple of months presumably – and hopefully vinyl/CD versions eventually.
These are songs recorded between the third and fourth Gillian Welch albums, Time (The Revelator) and Soul Journey, and deemed not quite right for release at the time. If the manifold pleasures of Boots No.1 - songs from the period of their debut, Revival – are any indication, there’s going to be lots to say, and lots to enjoy.
But preparing the ground, is this set of home recordings done while the pair were holed up at home in Nashville earlier this year, waiting out covid, and released, it’s worth noting, under joint names as they swap lead voice.
Given they’re not exactly known for sonic embellishments (at least not unless they’re powered up as The Dave Rawlings Machine), it’s hardly a shock to hear Welch and Rawlings bare bones as here. Even so, this really does sound like bedroom recordings, mistakes and all: as fresh and natural as if they’d plonked themselves down next to you one Sunday morning and cranked out a few favourites. And it is favourites, of theirs at least.
All The Good Times is ten covers, ranging from traditionals like Poor Ellen Smith, the title track – whose full title is the hopefully untrue All The Good Times Are Past And Gone - and the much travelled and reworked Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss (which sent me to my Patty Loveless recording of its close, albeit underage, cousin Pretty Little Miss) to a couple of lesser-travelled Dylans (Rawlings getting the Bob phrasing just right in Abandoned Love), John Prine’s first classic Hello In There, and a wry rather than randy Jackson.
As a bonus, the running order works as a good morning starter, with Elizabeth Cotton’s Oh Babe It Ain’t No Lie easing you into the set like a stretch and first coffee, and a spritely take on Arlie Duff’s Y’all Come ready to spring you out the door to church.
Sometimes it sounds like we’re in church with the 2013 live show recorded by The Milk Carton Kids with the absolute stillness and almost reverential silence during the songs, though it would be a church with the best mix I’ve ever encountered in a lifetime of too many bad masses.
You can almost feel the gliding, flying fingers of Kenneth Pattengale on a song like I Still Want A Little More (and those of “second fiddle” Joey Ryan on Girls, Gather ‘Round) the blend of his voice with Ryan’s are genuinely quite beatific, and the echoes of the righteous religious bluegrass/folk duos who came before them to raise voices to heaven are strong. Given their Australian tour was covid-cancelled, you have to suspect the hand of a god of some sort in this being available as a substitute.
That said, we’re not in church for the between-song chatter/patter, that mix of silliness, playfulness and sneaky pleasure, principally from Ryan with his straight man Pattengale, that is almost as appealing a part of a Milk Carton Kids show as the harmonies. You will leave this show all the wiser on ampersands, commas and their crucial roles in a Milk Carton Kids song.
Those harmonies and songs though … Years Gone By is almost trembly, The Ash & Clay has the lightness of being carefree, Michigan is hushed and yet firm alongside New York which almost gambols, and Maybe It’s Time builds the bridge between folk and country.