"The Harrow & The Harvest" 4 stars
It's been eight years since Welch and partner David Rawlings last released an album of new material. The wait was too long to say it was worth it, but "The Harrow & The Harvest" is pretty darn wonderful. The duo still breathe new life into shrewd mash-ups of folk traditions while sounding like completely authentic - if unusually worldly - rural types. That's an especially impressive trick Welch has been pulling off from the start of her career; she grew up in L.A., where her parents wrote music for "The Carol Burnett Show."
Reflecting the album's title, this time Welch sounds almost as interested in life's pleasures as in the darker themes that dominated most of her previous, dour laments. Which is not to say that she's gone soft. "Of all the little ways I find to hurt myself, you might be my favorite one of all" she sings with wry resignation on "Tennessee," and that same spirit of heading to hell with a satisfied smile lends much of this disc an intriguing perspective. How's this for a new subgenre? Gillian Welch party music.
"Reason and Rhyme" 3 1/2 stars
Sugar Hill 1/2
Americana stalwart Lauderdale's second collection of collaborations with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter (the first was last year's "Patchwork River") is pretty much head-on bluegrass. Hunter got into the spirit of the project by tempering his tendency for baroque verbal imagery; nevertheless, many of these tunes about haunted love, dropkick indifference and pointlessly passionate conflict bear a more sophisticated ring than your average, high-lonesome lament.
Lauderdale's voice, never exactly a marvelous instrument, is right for these kind of songs, and sounds about as good as it ever has in the mountain music idiom. He is, of course, backed by a superb string band, which includes album producer Randy Kohrs on resonator.
"The Wilders" 3 stars
Free Dirt Records Apparently, this long-running Kansas City group has been known for producing "hillbilly riot honky tonk," and that's been recently overshadowed by a more introspective approach and country rockish gait. There's been some controversy about that, but I wouldn't know; this self-titled album is the first Wilders I've heard, and it sounds pretty good to me. Ballads such as "Ordinary People" and "Mid November" are wistful and wise and appointed with nice, Celtic/classical string fills. And when they do hit the riot button, the Wilders certainly live up to their name. This set should send everyone home happy.
Trampled Under Foot
"Wrong Side of the Blues" 3 stars
Vizzitone Also from Kansas City, the three Schnebelen siblings were raised on the bluesier side of town. Their parents are members of the legendary K.C. blues community, and at this point it's probably become genetic. TUF bassist Danielle shouts and suffers with Joplinesque majesty, and brothers Nick (guitars) and Kris (drums) can be formidable vocalists themselves. The trio's writing skills are impressive, too; "Wrong Side" touches on every variation the genre can conceivably accommodate, and more songs than not sound like classics in the making.