The Gillian Welch Listening Party Adventure

I just got home from my local listening party for The Harrow & The Harvest, Gillian Welch’s album that’s out next week. (It doesn’t look like Chicago got one, so unless you’re traveling, looks like it’ll be another seven days of waiting.) I can’t do a full review based on what I heard — I like to listen more than once — so I’ll break this down into the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good:

  • It’s Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. They sound wonderful. They’re doing their thing. It’s been a long, long wait.
  • I’m tentatively delighted with the first two tracks — they’ll bear a little more listening before I form an opinion — but so far, they’re my early favorites.
  • I like that the-powers-that-be behind this record are willing to let people hear it early. The rumor I heard around the first tour of Dave Rawlings Machine in November-December 2009 was that David Rawlings wanted to do something for the record stores that helped him out with distribution several years ago; the result was lots of DRM in-store performances. Not sure if that has anything to do with the listening parties — they do seem like a growing trend — but whatever the reasons, I’m glad this album got one.
  • The chorus on the last track is excellent: that’s the way the cornbread crumbles, that’s the way the whole thing ends. Meta! (Maybe meta along the lines of “Everything Is Free”. Can’t quite tell yet.)

The Bad:

  • The song known in some quarters as “Knuckleball Catcher” isn’t on the album. I’d held out some hope that it’d be on there under a different title, but no joy.
  • I’d heard an early version of “Tennessee” from a tape of a Dave Rawlings Machine show a little over a year ago, and the version on the album has a different time signature. I think the song suffers for it, but the decision seems to make sense when you look at the album as a whole — there’s a lot more in 4/4 on that album than there is in 3/4, and so “Tennessee” gets shifted. Too bad.
  • I’m discovering that I like their work as Dave Rawlings Machine more than I like their work as Gillian Welch. More on that once I’ve given The Harrow & The Harvest a fair listen, though.

The Ugly:

  • The environment. Look: I’m pleased as punch that we got a listening party and that my local record store was willing to participate, and I’m certainly grateful to Twist and Shout for making that possible. But it wasn’t a listening party, it was a “we’ll play the album over the PA and everything else is business as usual” party. So it wasn’t a party. I had to wander the store to find a relatively out-of-the-way place where I could hear the music over the sounds of normal business. (For the future, in case you’re at a Twist and Shout listening party, it’s right in front of Roy Orbison in the pop/rock section, just behind the door to the video room. You know, the one right across from the listening stations that got no play for the listening party.) The last third of the album was particularly difficult to hear because the staff was so busy yelling at each other. What’s the point of a listening party if you can’t listen? Twist and Shout has recently done listening parties for Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver, and Gillian Welch. I’ve attended two of the three. And in both cases, there wasn’t much opportunity for good, deep listening, and there certainly wasn’t a party.

To be fair, I’m not sure what a real listening party would look like — the two ideas seem to be mutually exclusive; if you’re listening, where’s the party? if you’re partying, how can you listen? — but I’m pretty sure that standing around in front of the Roy Orbison CDs for an hour all by my lonesome while trying to hear an album eight years in the making isn’t it. In Twist and Shout’s case, they move around shelves of vinyl in order to make an in-store live performance space. It’s beyond me why they can’t or won’t create a similar space for an event focusing around studio albums. I really hope other listening parties in other places have gone better — if you’ve been to one, how was it?

The bad and the ugly aside, my preorder is in, by this time next week I’ll have The Harrow & The Harvest, and all will be well. I’m pretty excited! Let’s close this out with the track I wish was on there, but isn’t.

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