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Gillian Welch's austere music suits the times
The sound of suffering

Gillian Welch began recording during the 1990s dot-com boom, but her music has always been as sparse, dark and rustic as the Carter Family's Depression-era ballads. Her songs never fit the times. Until now. The 10 tracks on Welch's new album are as austere as America's unemployment-ridden cultural vibe in 2011.

There's even an eerie similarity between the economy's recent lack of productivity and Welch's. She and longtime musical partner David Rawlings went eight years without an album before releasing The Harrow and the Harvest last month.

Welch says she wrote songs during her long recording recess, but she hasn't liked many of them. Maybe that's why she decided to name her new album after the cyclical relationship between growth and dormancy. Welch and Rawlings perform in the Overture Center's Capitol Theater on July 21.

As an acoustic guitar duo, Welch and Rawlings rely on instrumental harmony to color their songs, which frequently contrast Rawlings' picking and Welch's strumming. It's a formula they follow to perfection on the album's first single, "The Way It Goes." The guitars sound restless and nervous as they chase each through verses that lament lives gone bad. "Becky Johnson bought the farm, put a needle in her arm," sings Welch. "And her brother laid her down in the cold Kentucky ground."

The vocal harmonies unfold with each chorus. They add urgency to the emotional resignation of each refrain. "That's the way it goes," sing Rawlings and Welch.

The Harrow and the Harvest is as influenced by rural folk and old-time country music as any Welch album. You can hear it in the banjo, harmonica and hand claps that shape the sound of "Six White Horses."

The CD's desolate mood is grounded in something deeper than the loneliness of a small-town landscape. It's steeped in the idea of getting stuck in a spiritual wasteland.

"I don't mind a little town or drinking my coffee cold," sings Welch on the album's leadoff track, "Scarlet Town." "But the things I've seen in Scarlet Town done mortify my soul."

Gillian Welch

Overture Center's Capitol Theatre, Thursday, July 21, 7:30 pm

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