Gillian Welch - Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs, Vol. 1 Music Album Reviews

Quickly recorded in 2002 to fulfill a publishing contract, this archival trove cements the singer-songwriter and her steadfast partner, David Rawlings, as modern masters of American folk.

By the end of 2002, when Gillian Welch recorded the tunes that constitute Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs, Vol. 1, she had fully arrived as an unexpected popular apostle of Appalachian folk music. A California kid raised by showbiz parents and inculcated in songcraft at the Berklee College of Music, Welch cut a promising figure in the teeming alt-country landscape of the late ’90s. Her keening voice made her songs about hardscrabble folks and imminent hellfire feel as old as the hills from which she hadn’t come. But her upbringing prompted puritanical concerns about authenticity and appropriation, as if she should apologize for sincere interest in one of her country’s bedrock forms.
For some, though, as the United States quivered with the onset of endless war in 2001, Welch and her steadfast harmony partner, David Rawlings, seemed a national salve. Pushed into the spotlight by the frame-shifting soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou? and the concert film that followed, the couple felt trustworthy and inspirational, a charming portrait of aspirational America that might have been plucked from Grant Wood’s imagination. Welch didn’t shy from darkness, either. Her contemporaneous album, 2001’s Time (the Revelator), explored the country’s vile underbelly, particularly the sense that we were exploiting one another into oblivion. One of the young century’s first masterpieces, Time (the Revelator) tapped the past to contextualize present anxieties and offer the occasional jubilee. What other role should modern folk music play?

Buoyed by this sudden success, Welch resolved she could finally break from the publishing contract she’d signed nine years earlier—she was a successful singer-songwriter now, not merely a writer for hire. During one productive weekend at home in December 2002, six months before releasing the aching Soul Journey, she and Rawlings pored through more than 100 notebooks. They turned scraps of discarded songs into enough quick recordings to fulfill her contract before it renewed January 1.

Those 48 tunes languished in storage boxes for nearly two decades, until the tornadoes that swept through Nashville in March and the financial uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic prompted Welch and Rawlings to excavate them. Taken together, the resulting three volumes of Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs—a nominal follow-up to 2016’s Boots No. 1: The Official Revival Bootleg, a collection of outtakes from her 1996 debut—will effectively double the painstakingly patient musician’s catalogue. (Volumes two and three are to follow in coming months.) Singing and playing just to get the job done, she and Rawlings have never sounded so nonchalant on record as they do here, delivering these songs with the candor of an afternoon band rehearsal. Effortlessly balancing light and dark, this first batch of 16 songs is an essential distillation of her ability to tell detailed stories open for endless interpretation.

Welch’s best songs have always evoked mystery. Ambiguity and intrigue are her essential inheritance from the old records and songbooks she internalized. For Welch, the listener should come away from a song with more questions than answers. Time (the Revelator) was her masterclass in that regard: Its elliptical epics teased connections between the Dust Bowl, Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, and the sinking of the Titanic, and then (presciently) asked what music might become when stripped of all value. Boots No. 2 plays like a workbook of exercises on that enigmatic mode, a set of three-minute delights that reveal just enough of a story to electrify the imagination.

You may ask, for instance, what exactly happened to the downtrodden protagonist of the tender “Chinatown,” neglected by the postal service and ignored by sunshine until even flowers became phantoms. Why were the Bonnie-and-Clyde couple of “Honey Baby” on the lam, and how did they arrive at the gallows? You’ll pity the exhausted outlaws in “Apalachicola” and “Shotgun Song” while wondering about their crimes. Even “Mighty Good Book,” which first scans as a bounding gospel tune fit for a churchyard picnic, revels in equivocation. “Are you gonna wish you read the story/Of when Jesus paid it all?” Welch sings, rendering commandments as questions, as if to tell you she doesn’t have the answer, either.

There are simpler pleasures, too. “Little Luli” is an irrepressible ode to a proud woman who shakes down traveling men while shaking for their dimes. “First Place Ribbon” relates the story of the shoeless and itinerant Kathy, wooing the boys and evading the preachers as she travels with the fair. Such anachronisms may sound like cosplay, but, for Welch, they’re echoes of the past made resonant again. These are glorious tributes to the wiles of rebellious women, sung in solidarity by someone pushing back against a powerful industry herself. And Welch seems to have reserved “Back Turn and Swing,” a lithe country dance tune, for the perfect moment. Above spring-loaded guitars that beg for a bluegrass band, Welch acknowledges life’s troubles but celebrates the thrills of dancing with friends and guzzling wine. It’s a testament to perseverance and the promise of better days—a timely reminder that hard times come and, with luck, go.

Good news for the music industry has been particularly illusory in 2020—canceled tours, scrapped sessions, delayed releases, Spotify investing $100 million in Joe Rogan. One unanticipated boon has been a change in temperament among some typically exacting artists, who have lowered their guards to put out music, long-shelved and new alike, with less premeditation or preciousness. (What else do you do during endless quarantine?) The same impulse has compelled Taylor Swift’s folklore, a high volume of low-stakes live albums on Bandcamp, and a stream of hard-drive (or tape-reel) dumps just like Boots No. 2. In July, Welch and Rawlings released an off-the-cuff covers album, imperfectly captured on tape during quarantine.

Welch and Rawlings are a famously fastidious pair, self-proclaimed perfectionists who once spent eight years fretting over an album. This meticulousness has sometimes been fodder for critics who say authentic folk music shouldn’t be so calculated. Boots No. 2 should quell that gripe once and for all. Here they are at home during a wintry Southern weekend, churning through songs good enough to be standards by the dozen. They play and sing with an intimacy so easy it seems as if they’ve forgotten the tape is rolling at all.
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Gillian Welch - Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs, Vol. 1 Music Album Reviews Gillian Welch - Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs, Vol. 1 Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Wednesday, August 19, 2020 Rating:

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