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POP MUSIC | RECORD RACK

Mesmerizing Mimicry of Rural Tunes

*** GILLIAN WELCH "Hell Among the Yearlings" ALMO Sounds

July 26, 1998|Steve Hochman

The Appalachian sounds, subject matter nd syntax still seem a bit suspect coming from a Los Angeles-raised singer-songwriter--especially with the wealth of "authentic" material available now.

Sure, some top-flight artists have done amazing things appropriating from other cultures--e.g., Mick Jagger singing American blues. Much of this music by Welch and her partner David Rawlings, though, is mere stylistic mimicry. Where are their experiences and perspectives to process the inspirations into something new?

That said, it's testimony to the power of the source material that even copycat performances can be mesmerizing, as these often are. And it's testimony to the duo that these rural vignettes and meditations are so fully fleshed. There is haiku-like grace in the imagery, with earthy arrangements even sparer than on the 1996 debut, and the arid yet emotional delivery breathes life into the hard-life scenarios and sorrow-racked characters.

The few instances where they break the mold are the most rewarding. In "Honey Now," they step into exuberant hillbilly rock 'n' roll. And on "Whiskey Girl," with haunted desperation backed by otherworldly piano, they achieve a distinctive, personal aesthetic that hints at exciting future possibilities.

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Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent).

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Hear the Music

Excerpts from these albums and other recent releases are available on The Times' World Wide Web site. Point your browser to: http://www.latimes.com/soundclips

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