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Dave Rawlings takes the spotlight he deserves

December 26, 2009

Dave Rawlings Machine
A Friend of a Friend
November 17, 2009

Rating: 7.75/10

You probably already know who Dave Rawlings is.

You might recognize his name from the first track on Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker; you may have heard his guitar skills on Gillian Welch’s records; you have may have even noticed that he produced for Old Crow Medicine Show.

But until now, no one knew his full potential.

It’s fitting that Rawlings first album is titled A Friend of a Friend, because that is exactly how we know him. Now that he has dropped this old-time collection of folk songs, which are as sweet as Old Time lemonade, he’ll be known for his song remarkable writing ability, rather than his teamwork.

However, his songwriting should be pretty familiar already. One well-known Rawlings co-written song is Ryan Adams’ “To Be Young (is to be sad, is to be high).” This classic is retouched for A Friend of a Friend, and given a swinging fiddle treatment instead of a screeching guitar. It maintains the fast and loose rebellious spirit the Adams original had, but definitely takes on its own dynamic as a Dave Rawlings song.

The songs on this album sound as if they were recorded decades earlier, but have a refreshing sound that makes them entirely modern. Rawlings exquisite bluegrass-folk music is as magnificent on this album as it is for any Welch record.

His flatpicking has a tendency to make each song sound bouncy and joyous. This is evident in songs like “How’s About You” and the cute-as-a-button “Sweet Tooth,” which have a rich, endearing lightheartedness.

Rawlings perennial partner, Gillian Welch, makes an appearance on almost every song either singing harmony or playing guitar. She adds a sweetness to the songs without stealing the spotlight; giving his album back what he has done for hers so often.

A Friend of a Friend continues to question what a cover song is with his versions of “I Hear Them All,” a co-write for Old Crow Medicine Show, and a mash-up of Bright Eyes “Method Acting” and the Neil Young classic “Cortez the Killer.”

“I Hear Them All” is a darling little composition, stripped bare, highlighting Rawlings raspy tenor and guitar prowess. Conversely, “Method Acting/Cortez the Killer” gently expresses Oberst’s disgust and Young’s terrific tale with a sense of foreboding. There is a freshness to these classic songs that is expressed in the intricate flatpicking that supports the songs.

Rawlings has an energy to his music that makes the recording sound much more lively than most recorded material. In his review for Paste Magazine Stephen Deusner describes Rawlings as a good man to share a front porch with. A Friend of a Friend is true to his assertion: all nine songs sound as if they were recorded on Rawlings front porch at his home in Nashville rather than RCA Studio B.

Thoughs I enjoyed this album a great deal, I’ll admit that it isn’t a groundbreaking album, rather quite the opposite. A Friend of a Friend feels exceedingly comfortable, and with his revisited co-written songs, it feels like Rawlings is taking a victory lap prior to putting out another album for Welch.

Regardless, this album is light and enjoyable. Across nine songs there is a lot fun to be had by simply delighting in the majesty of Rawlings’ songs.

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