Plumbiferous Media

A Friend of a Friend – Dave Rawlings Machine

Dec 17th 2009
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A Friend of a Friend - Dave Rawlings MachineDave Rawlings Machine
A Friend of a Friend
Score: 45

After working with musicians including Ryan Adams, Gillian Welch, and Bright Eyes, David Rawlings released his first solo album, A Friend of a Friend, in November as Dave Rowlings Machine. While A Friend of a Friend shows influences from many of the genres Rawlings has worked in, it mainly serves as an entry into the field of country and bluegrass. Unfortunately, A Friend of a Friend suffers from a number of fairly serious issues and in the end does not turn out to be terribly successful.

Dave Rawling’s vocals clearly show elements from both country and classic rock, but unfortunately, it’s not done quite as well as the best examples from either genre. Rawling’s voice often falls into a stylistic whine, which, while fitting the genre, is very evidently tacked on top of Rawling’s standard vocal style, begging the question of whether it is really necessary at all. The best tracks on the album (including “Method Acting / Cortez the Killer”) include segments where Rawling’s Bob Dylan impression works fairly well, but they’re certainly limited – and even more unfortunately, the restraint that this small bit of success requires extends to all of the music, making these sections both the most vocally pleasing and the least interesting otherwise.

Lyrically, A Friend of a Friend is, more than anything else, desperately folksy. Tracks like “To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)” are exactly as deep as could be expected from the title (that one contains the line “When you’re young you get sad / And you get high”). Fortunately, however, that’s the lyrical low point of the album. The rest of it is largely useless but benign – there’s not much substance to be found, but at least it’s not painful to listen to.

As mentioned, the instrumentals on a number of tracks simply do not support their length, most noticeably the first track, and a chunk of the album running from “Method Acting / Cortez the Killer” to “Hours about You.” Clearly meant to focus the listener’s attention on the vocals, which, admittedly, are often at their best, the instrumentals themselves are repetitive to the point of inanity and by no means warrant tracks around five minutes in length, let alone the ten minutes of “Method Acting / Cortez the Killer.” Additionally, focusing the listener’s attention on the vocals often has the unfortunate side effect of focusing attention on the lyrics, which, in these tracks, include such inanities as the (repeated) lines from “Sweet Tooth:” “I’m going to the doctor / gonna pull my sweet tooth,” and “Come on give me some of that Novocaine.”

That said, when the instrumentals are good, they are very good. The first instance occurs on “To Be Young (Is to Be Sad, Is to Be High),” where Rawlings’s unique, occasionally highly stringy guitar style interacts beautifully with the almost overly-rich bass. But Rawling can do more than mesh tones nicely. Many tracks, especially during vocal absense show excellent examples of counterpoint and secondary melodies. Possibly the best track for instrumentals is “It’s Too Easy,” which uses an incredible, rich fiddle part, backed up perfectly by an active bass and syncopated guitar.

Dave Rawlings is an immensely talented musician, and it clearly shows on A Friend of a Friend. Unfortunately, it shows up all too sparsely. Most tracks either have solid instrumentals or solid vocals, rarely both simultaneously, and few tracks have truly interesting lyrics. Additionally, the album does not seem to be constructed incredibly carefully. The dynamic changes are often abrupt, and Rawlings generally either goes for loud or quiet, and almost never some middle ground. Finally, the album seems to peter off as it goes, with fewer and fewer truly interesting tracks as it progresses. So while the album is certainly interesting, it is not even quite as good as an average album.

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