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. More curious still is that their latest full-length appears under Rawlings’ name (in a 2004 New Yorker profile, Welch described them as “a two-piece band called Gillian Welch”).
Opener “Ruby” is a sweet original that sounds like an up-tempo Gillian Welch track, and the kind of achingly beautiful tune Ryan Adams records once an album. “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)” follows, a song that Rawlings co-wrote with Adams for Adams’ solo debut, Heartbreaker. Rawlings recasts the rocking original as a bluegrass-inflected tune, and the result is listenable but inessential. “I Hear Them All,” a standout track first recorded by Old Crow Medicine Show (members of whom serve as the backing band on a number of tracks), is a two-and-a-half-minute slice of empathetic folk that suggests that a stripped-down, acoustic record from Rawlings could be a revelation.
The centerpiece of the record is a lengthy showpiece for Rawlings’ guitar chops; a cover of Bright Eyes’ “Method Acting,” paired as a medley with Neil Young’s classic “Cortez The Killer.” Rawlings expends more time on Conor Oberst’s trite composition (sample lyric: “It starts with an ending”) rather than a dramatic reworking of Young’s classic. “Cortez” gets an all-too-brief reading at the end of a lengthy guitar workout. On “Sweet Tooth,” a heartfelt novelty tune in the best American folk tradition, Rawlings’ vocals express the ideal American vernacular, recalling Bob Dylan’s intonations during the Rolling Thunder Revue era. The album drifts along with more serviceable, energetic folk tunes, before closer “Bells of Harlem,” a beautiful but derivative composition that is the height of the record’s tendency toward Dylan worship.
Substituting Rawlings for Welch as leader of the group doesn’t solve the central problem of the duo’s catalog: their inability to transcend their influences and create music as deeply felt as their inspirations. For dedicated adherents, A Friend Of A Friend is an essential part of the Rawlings-Welch story, but casual listeners should stick with 2001’s high water-mark Time (The Revelator).