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Music Review: Dave Rawlings Machine – A Friend Of A Friend

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As guitarist, co-writer, and harmony vocalist, David Rawlings has played a major role in the success of Gillian Welch. Here the two reverse roles, with Rawlings stepping forward as leader and providing most of the vocals. Welch still plays a prominent role, co-writing a handful of tunes and contributing harmony vocals throughout. The result is a less than overwhelming collection of odds and ends Rawlings has long wanted to record.

In addition to his work with Welch, Rawlings has been touring with Bright Eyes and working with jam band darlings Old Crow Medicine Show. Members of the latter are on hand to help out here, and Rawlings includes a cover of Conor Oberst’s “Method Acting,” worked into a musically satisfying but thematically odd medley with Neil Young’s “Cortez The Killer.” The only other cover is Jesse Fuller’s “Monkey And The Engineer,” a vaudevillian tune that adds a bit of levity to proceedings.

Rawlings co-wrote the rest with various contributors, and gets help from new friends who include keyboard master Benmont Tench and members of Bright Eyes. All of which means the ingredients are in place for a fine collection of rootsy, country-inflected songs. Unfortunately, Rawlings is a better backup singer than a lead vocalist, and the disc suffers somewhat because his voice simply isn’t strong enough to carry the extended load.

He’s a good enough singer – there’s nothing wrong with his relaxed, at times downright laconic delivery. The mechanics are there, but Rawlings’s voice is thin and reedy and not, in the end, terribly appealing. He’s okay on the jauntier numbers, and when he blends his voice with Welch the harmonies are sublime. But when arrangements are sparse and he himself is front and center, he falls far short of convincing.

Rawlings is a talented man with a compelling musical vision. He knows how to sing (again, past work with Welch proves him a superb harmony singer), and his instrumental work here is entirely satisfactory. It’s unfortunate that his voice – the raw material he has to work with – isn’t quite up to the demands of a leader.

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