Album Review: A Friend Of A Friend by Dave Rawlings Machine
Excellent, Based on 7 Critics
Observer Music Monthly - 100 Based on rating 5/5
Dave Rawlings is best known as Gillian Welch's other half in the cultish American folk duo that confusingly bears only her name, so you can see how doing a solo album might have seemed a good way of finally getting a mention on the cover. But Welch isn't too far away, co-writing five of the nine tracks here and singing back-up on all but one. So what's the difference – does he just turn his mic up and hers down? Well, there is that, but Rawlings has various alt.country and bluegrass familiars at work here too, chiefly members of the Old Crow Medicine Show adding mountain fiddles and banjos.
Longtime sideman takes the lead with first solo album It’s hard to believe A Friend of a Friend is David Rawlings’ first album under his own name. For more than 12 years, the Nashville-based musician has toured, written and recorded with Gillian Welch, exploring the well-worn byways of country, bluegrass and stringband music while making the old-timey sound new. As a hired gun, he’s played sideman to artists following in Welch’s wake or creating their own: Sara Watkins, Ryan Adams, Bright Eyes, Guy Clark, Mark Knopfler and Jay Farrar, among others.
Fans of Gillian Welch will love Dave Rawlings's debut solo album. For one, Welch, Rawlings's long-time musical partner, appears all over it, singing reedy, yodelling harmonies over his Dylanesque tenor, and as co-writer on five of the nine tunes. Members of the Old Crow Medicine Show, Rawlings's proteges, also lend their writing and playing chops, and there's a melancholy mid-album "mashup" of Bright Eyes' Method Acting and Neil Young's Cortez The Killer.
“We’re a band, a little band,” Gillian Welch has often commented, with regard to the music that she and her guitar-wizard partner David Rawlings have produced under Welch’s name since their 1996 debut album Revival. Fans of the pair, in particular those who’ve seen them in concert, will know just how accurate this assessment is. Although Welch generally sings lead, Welch and Rawlings are, in the truest sense, a duo, with a symbiotic rapport.
Ironically, the most telling line on Dave Rawlings' first album as a frontman comes from one of the few tracks he didn't write. On his version of the Bright Eyes song Method Acting, imagine a more direct explanation of A Friend of a Friend's genesis. Singer/guitarist/songwriter/producer Rawlings has worked with Bright Eyes and Old Crow Medicine Show in the past, and members of both bands return the favor by appearing here, but of course he's best-known for being Gillian Welch's musical foil throughout her career.
It is hard to imagine, post O, Brother Where Art Thou?, how unfashionable Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings sounded in 1996 when they released their debut album of bluegrass-inspired folk songs under the name Gillian Welch. Thirteen years on, interest in “American primitive” music has never been higher. It is curious, then, that the duo hasn’t released anything since 2003’s mixed bag, Soul Journey.
Nashville guitarist David Rawlings could be accused of hiding his talent behind a bushel, though it's not a bad bushel to hide under: he is Gillian Welch's writing partner, and has lent his distinctively wiry, chromatic guitar lines to albums by Ryan Adams, Robyn Hitchcock and Bright Eyes, among others. Rawlings's solo debut sounds suspiciously like a Welch album with the vocal mix reversed; as his regular partner appears as co-writer on five of the nine tracks. Ruby feels like something the Band might have produced during its Big Pink period, How's About You is a loping fiddle tune and It's Too Easy hitches a ride on traditional folk melody Reuben's Train.