When Gillian Welch released her first album, the Grammy-nominated folk masterpiece Revival, a public still searching for a new mainstream musical direction following Kurt Cobain’s suicide barely took notice. That was in 1996, around the time Americans briefly decided that swing music was the “new” thing. Other fads followed and disappeared as fast as you can say punk-ska. Welch’s popularity, meanwhile, grew in alt-country circles, but her audience remained decidedly adult and undeservingly small.

But when the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack shot up the charts in 2000, Welch’s authentic sound suddenly became en vouge. She released Time (The Revelator) the following year to a flood of well-deserved rave reviews and national publicity. ABC even slotted her to play its July 4th Musical Celebration last summer.

Now generally recognized as one of the leaders behind the revival of whatever name you want to give the recent upsurge in bluegrass/country/folk/rock, Welch is at a unique point in her career where she is expected to put out brilliant albums.

Early reviews for Soul Journey have been mixed, which is probably more a reflection of reviewers’ preoccupations with garage rock and Welch’s unflashy approach to her career than a reflection of the album. Or perhaps the fickle nature of American musical tastes has them bored with Welch’s music.

Soul Journey is easily as brilliant an album as Time. Welch and longtime collaborator David Rawlings have crafted yet another gripping collection of songs that sound as authentic as anything set to tape since Harry Smith recorded the Carter Family. In fact, without the liner notes, it’s often difficult to differentiate between which Welch songs on this album are covers and which are originals.

Journey moves at a more deliberate pace than any of Welch’s previous albums, which is surprising because Welch uses a rhythm section here more than ever before. It is a pace, though, that makes the album the perfect autumn listen. Songs like “Lowlands” and “One Monkey” are propelled forward by crisp snare hits and smart bass lines, but wind slowly through morose fiddles and vocals. Elsewhere, “One Little Song” and “I Had A Real Good Mother and Father” find Welch singing bittersweet lyrics over bare acoustic guitars. The album ends with the rousing, Bob Dylan cum Neil Young masterpiece “Wrecking Ball,” a song that no doubt will close Welch’s live shows, complete with a stage full of musicians and a swaying audience.

Mainstream music has once more moved on to hipper pastures, leaving artists like Welch again to quieter audiences. But that doesn’t mean Welch is happy about it. “Let’s drink a round to Nashville before they tear it down,” she sings on Journey. Mainstream country may have sold itself down the river, but Welch continues to ensure that all isn’t lost in American music’s dustier corners.

Rating: 5 stars.

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