Gillian Welch's "The Harrow & The Harvest" Finally on AAA Vinyl And Well Worth the Wait!

Originally released on CD in 2011 this recorded-to-tape Gillian Welch gem finally has an AAA vinyl release. Welch explains the motivation for the vinyl version in a Washington Post profile .

Welch and partner David Rawlings got ahold of an early pressing of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks—an album they’d only previously heard on CD. “For the first time, I could actually see Van singing into the microphone, I could visualize what he was doing. I could see all of it. And just after that moment of revelation, we were both instantaneously furious — just furious that this sonic information had been eradicated by the CD.”

That revelation came a few years ago. Why the delay releasing this on vinyl? The two were unhappy with the quality of the mastering they heard. Their exacting standards weren’t being met.

So, in 2013 they concluded that buying and refurbishing their own cutting lathe was the only way to achieve the desired results.

Five years and more than $100,000 later they have finally issued the first two Acony Records releases cut from tape on their lathe, now housed at Stephen Marcussen’s Precision Mastering in Los Angeles (Rawlings' record Poor David's Almanack will be reviewed shortly).

Before Marcussen exited the vinyl mastering business in the 1990s his place was called Precision Lacquer. So, like many audio enthusiasts who have returned to vinyl, he’s come “full circle”.

Listen to this record and you’ll surely conclude that the money and sweat equity Welch and Rawlings invested has been well spent.

Fans of Welch’s 2003 release Soul Journey waited even longer for The Harrow and the Harvest to first appear on CD in 2011 though the problems there were artistic rather than technical. Welch and Rawlings apply exacting standards as well to their artistic endeavors and that’s fortunate because executing their “modern sounds in Appalachian balladry” must be a difficult and delicate balancing act.

So rather than releasing new material at regular intervals, which is what Neil Young has said he does to “keep it flowing”, Welch and Rawlings chose to wait until they felt they had the goods. Though a few of the songs here like “Down Along the Dixie Line” are infused with nostalgia, and all have an appropriately rural lyrical feel, the stories mostly deal with universal issues that know no specific time.

For instance “The Way It Goes”, which is the song I chose to share on YouTube, deals in short, sad vignettes with drug addiction, escape, loss, failure (especially) and rejection all tied together with a “life goes on” generational thread referenced in the lyric “everybody’s buying little baby clothes”.

There’s also a wry “in joke” there too in the line “Now Billy Joe’s back in the tank, you tell Musso I’ll tell Frank”. Musso and Frank Grill is a Hollywood Boulevard restaurant that’s been around since 1919 and looks that way. It was a big music business hangout when I lived in Los Angeles in the early 1980s. What’s it doing there? Does it matter?

What makes these songs magical is the way the lyrics, though infused with specifics, leave the listener fully in charge of meaning and extrasensory imagery, as in the verse “Mama’s in the beauty parlor, Daddy’s in the baseball pool, Sister’s in the drive-in movie, Brother’s in the old high school.”

Given the song’s verses, what’s the meaning of the refrain, “That’s the way the cornbread crumbles, That’s the way the whole thing ends”. It’s not clear. Could be a relationship that left one “standing in the back door crying”, but one thing’s for sure: the line wouldn’t have worked with a croissant.

Both Rawlings and Welch were Berklee School of Music students, which may seem unusual since the school tends to graduate jazz musicians. However, the sound of Rawlings’ guitar and the blend with Welch’s makes clear that what’s going on here is not “simple picking”. There are rich guitar and banjo textures and harmonics that are almost orchestral in nature. A little online research turned up an interesting piece in Premier Guitar that you will find interesting. It explains some of the sonic intimacy and complexity you’ll hear on this record.

The recorded sound here is everything you'd wish for on an album of acoustic instruments and vocals. It's artifact-free, harmonically and texturally rich and complex and spatially three-dimensional. Clearly the duo played together and recorded in the same space, allowing for plenty of microphone bleed—the kind that produces three dimensionality and harmonic interplay between instruments. The QRP pressing is dead quiet too. (Note: the first pressing has sold out but do order now. It's worth the wait!)

For the vinyl release Welch has also colorized the CD’s starkly drawn cover in Fall’s rich oranges and yellows appropriate for the album’s “Harvest” title. The gatefold “Tip On” packaging is deluxe as is the richly textured paper stock. As for the imagery’s meaning, I’ll leave that to you other than to note Gillian’s got the fire and Dave’s got the match.

tparker14's picture

Rawlings' "Poor David's Almanac" is just as well-mastered!

John G's picture

Any idea when the repress will be ready? I’ve been waiting for quite awhile to enjoy their music on vinyl.

Wimbo's picture

this petehardis is.

lorax's picture

and I am also curious to know Michael's suggestion on which pressing of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks is worth tracking down.

ED2015's picture

What a great AAA vinyl release. Definitely worth getting if you're a fan of this duo. I can confirm that the sound quality is just outstanding, worth every penny.

Thanks and have a nice day,

BillBr's picture

Was one of my favorite artists for several years, i literally wore out the cds, with flecks coming off the sides of the discs. That they are about the only artists i can think of that have not embraced vinyl releases until now has been frustrating to say the least. I stopped listening to their music after Harrow and Harvest, it was just so sad they were clinging to the digital format exclusively. Glad to hear they "had a moment" with good ole VanM, his early releases are wonderful soundscapes. Why it took them so long is baffling. This poor mastering is a poor excuse, there are so many great people who could have done this work. Buy their own lathe? AYFKM? Because they can master vinyl better than anyone now suddenly after claiming complete ignorance of the format for their entire careers? How long for the rest of the catalog?

genesplitter's picture

$23.33 with free shipping at Amazon. I'm really looking forward to listening to this album.