Mixology: The Musical Complexity of David Rawlings Machine's Roots

12/09/2009 Posted by Admin

By our guest blogger, Britt Sondreal

Prior to this, his “first” release--first as an album in which he stands front and center, singing from the spotlight--David Rawlings was the man behind a musical curtain. For so gifted a musician who has contributed in a brilliant variety of ways to some of this era’s best and brightest, including but not limited to Ryan Adams, Bright Eyes, Old Crow Medicine Show and, most centrally, Gillian Welch, Rawlings’ name and role have been surprisingly down-played. Perhaps this is how he is happiest, wearing hats from Americana guitarist to songwriter/collaborator to producer, exerting a quiet but powerful influence on the projects he engages. Whether he’s comfortable with his newly conspicuous place in the public traffic of fellow musicians, we can be glad that he’s decided to step up to the mike and front a solo album, “A Friend of a Friend,” released by Acony on November 17, 2009 under the project name David Rawlings Machine.

Like so many other producer/musician/writer triple-threats (T. Bone Burnett and Danger Mouse come to mind) who release an album of their own work, there is a core strength here of musical knowledge and sophistication that anchor “Friend.” Where the challenge lies in stepping out as a unique voice, related to but separate from his other projects, Rawlings, like Burnett and D.M. before him, delivers songs that are a wonderfully rich experience of all we know and love of that artist through veins traced in collaboration albums. This time, though, the familiar themes, guitar progressions and layered harmonies come concentrated, distilled and offered up to be enjoyed direct from the source.

This is not to say that Rawlings conducted this train alone--collaborators and co-writers on the album include long-time musical partner Gillian Welch, Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, members of O.C.M.S., and several others. Not all the tracks are originals--there is a beautifully seamless stitching together of Conor Oberst and Neil Young covers into one long, extended, 10:20 piece, “Method Acting/Cortez the Killer.” In an interview by Jewly Hight in the Nov/Dec issue of American Songwriter Magazine (very much worth a read for fans of the Welch/Rawling duo), Rawlings articulates their hybridized cover as a “dirge.” Listeners familiar with the Gillian Welch catalog will recognize overtones of “Time: The Revelator” here--the marathon track passes surprisingly quickly as you lose yourself in the meandering strumming and picking that unfolds from the fingers of a true guitarist.

Other original tracks draw both instrumental and vocal associations as various as Neil Young/CSNY, Bob Dylan, David Gray and Paul Simon. Each song is deftly assembled with firm foundations of the signature Rawlings style but structured loosely enough to allow for surprises and new discoveries. “Sweet Tooth” is a song full of double-entendre whimsy and sudden bursts of tambourine that calls to mind the work of Burl Ives with its folk song syntax. There are chorus points of full vocal harmonies--much more fleshed out than the spare and selective counterpoints heard on Gillian Welch albums--that are so complete, they almost reference barbershop quarteting.  Prime examples of this are “How’s About You” and “Ruby," the latter of which features a harmonal composition strongly broadcasting CSNY. Rawlings’ rendition of “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High),” co-authored with Ryan Adams and originally recorded for his 2000 break-through album “Heartbreaker,” is a different experience altogether from Adams’ frenetic, gritty-bar howl. In Rawlings’ hands, the song takes a turn for the Americana, opening with squawking O.C.M.S. fiddles and lending a more laid-back perspective--here is a more experienced narrator looking back with wiser eyes instead of singing straight from the heat and desperation of the young, sad and high.

All these influences and collaborators could lead to a disperate and confused debut, but in Rawlings’ competent hands, they are instead blended into an intricately coherent cocktail, at once anticipated and unexpected. An unfortunately brief tour through December runs a Southeastern/Midwestern circuit--let’s hope this taste of frontsmanship gives Rawlings a hunger for more.

  • Digg
  • del.icio.us
  • StumbleUpon
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Technorati
  • Facebook
  • TwitThis
  • MySpace
  • LinkedIn
  • Live
  • Google
  • Reddit
  • Sphinn
  • Propeller
  • Slashdot
  • Netvibes