It's been two years since Gillian Welch's last album, the dense, masterful Time (The Revelator), floored fans and recent converts, and three years since her cameos in O Brother, Where Art Thou? and its accompanying soundtrack, road show, and concert documentary elevated the soulful, doleful diva out of the ghetto of neo-folkie Americana into something resembling altcountry superstardom. Though her fourth record, Soul Journey, may seem like a retreat to a simpler sound, built on plain, pretty chords and light blues riffs, appearances can be deceptive. Perhaps to a greater extent than any of her altie contemporaries, Welch has a peculiar kind of perfect pitch, an ability to craft irresistible modern music from odd, old-fashioned sources. Peppering her songs with catch phrases from old country and acoustic blues tunes, she tips her hat to tradition while radiating a brooding, pensive modernity. Anachronism is her stock in trade; in one breath she sings of the regimental soldier, in the next about a ragtop convertible racing toward a new town — the past, present, and future hooking up at the corner bar to hoist a few drinks and catch her second set.
As on other albums, Welch sticks to a single mournful, nostalgic emotional tone, monochromatic but never monotonous. A brief album, Soul Journey is packed with slight, subtle gems, captivating tunes that usher you from moment to moment, until — abruptly, perfectly — it's all over and you're ready to hear it again. The best songs on here, particularly “Back in Time” and “Look at Miss Ohio,” have the sneaky kind of melodies that linger in the back of your mind and return at odd moments.
The narcotic poppiness here suggests that if they wanted to, Welch and guitarist David Rawlings could easily plug in, pump up the volume, and conquer the world. Thank goodness they're content to hang around back here instead, picking a few tunes on the front porch for the rest of us young fogies — the mainstream's loss is definitely our gain.