You wouldn’t expect surprises from Rawlings and Welch, their musical partnership so long and distinctly established. Even the album cover picture in black and white seems to represent rooted longevity – their place in history recorded in a time-warp frontier pose, the two prominent members of the Dave Rawlings Machine seated in their superior status and flanked by two others standing, each a hand on the chair to their sides, protectively/reverentially.
But there are surprises. The sweeping and at times saccharine strings on the opening two tracks are unexpected. First The Weekend is, in addition to its title, very much a Neil Young sound – apart from those strings. Rawlings’ voice is at the lead, and it is a drawl that talks to us casually from the open front door, chatty and expansive, and when Welch adds her harmony vocal there is the familiar tight sweetness, and Rawlings adds his signature guitar pickings, working through complex notes. Next Short Haired Woman Blues has a stepped acoustic guitar riff that rises and falls, a laconic cowboy-blues, until the strings sweep in again on a much broader wave. It is, actually, strange. Not Bacharach, but it is pop-60s, and they eventually pick up and follow the guitar riff before swelling out again orchestrally.
Third The Trip is what we do expect, an eleven minute narrative, this time employing a single fiddle played by Brittany Haas. So take a trip wherever your conscience says to roam; it’s much too much to try and live a lie at home is the increasingly beautiful chorus to this song, each time the harmony of its delivery heightening the maxim, and it is as if this beauty posits an effect like that of the literary theory that such perfection in expression usurps the otherwise darkness of the context/content, for the storytelling does seem to lay out the competing reality of a life lived in ordinariness or much worse, or very little of elevating experience [there's the poles of a body and a handkerchief and a hatchet and an unspeakable crime as well as the way banjos ring, chickens squall and little babies crow]. It is a hypnotic song that arouses those mixed feelings with increasing intensity after repeated listens.
There’s sweet surprise in the falsetto singing from Rawlings on Bodysnatchers, and more references to chickens in the bluegrass of The Last Pharaoh. There’s something sticky on the floor, is it Candy? is the not-so-existential question in Candy, a song that has been played live by the band for a while; and the final song Pilgrim [You Can’t Go Home], reminds of The Old Crow Medicine Show, not surprising with Rawlings’ involvement in that band, and co-founder of Old Crow, Willie Watson, playing on this album.
Is it, for all of this, a good album? You bet your darn chickens it is.