The title of David Rawlings’ debut “solo” album, A Friend of a Friend, may be the most appropriate album title since Raw Power. A perennial sideman, Rawlings has most notably backed Gillian Welch though, if you’ve ever seen the two perform, you’re aware of just how colossal a misnomer it is to describe Rawlings’ role as “backing” anyone. More aptly, Rawlings has performed alongside Welch, contributing aching, lonesome harmonies and devastatingly beautiful guitar to every one of Welch’s releases to date. You’ll also find Rawlings behind (or beside) Ryan Adams, Allison Krause, Emmylou Harris, the Wallflowers, Norah Jones, and a host of other artists found on a Starbucks Americana Sampler near you. I suppose one could describe Rawlings’ career as being “under the radar,” but anyone who picked up the O Brother Where Art Thou Soundtrack should be well acquainted with David Rawlings.
A Friend of a Friend may not propel Rawlings to AAA radio stardom or expand his audience too far beyond those who already shout themselves horse every time he steps up to perform Conor Oberst’s “Method Acting” – which morphs into “Cortez the Killer” on A Friend of a Friend, much the way it does in most of Rawlings’ performances – during Welch’s sets, but something tells me Rawlings didn’t make this record to take the “next step” in his career. A Friend of a Friend doesn’t play at all like some calculated career move, but rather a collection of songs Rawlings felt a connection with, and wanted to record, so he did. My best guess – and this is only a guess – is that’s exactly what it is. It doesn’t take much in the way of imagination to envision Rawlings picking and singing these tunes backstage before a gig, or in his living room some Sunday afternoon. There is not a single contrived or inauthentic moment on A Friend of a Friend and, in a sad commentary on the state of the music industry, that’s quite a feat.
Sonically and structurally speaking, the album is essentially another Gillian Welch/David Rawlings album, with Rawlings handling lead vocal duties this time out. Welch is all over the record, as are a number of Rawlings friends (and friends of friends, one assumes). And while A Friend of a Friend meanders at times, the high points – “Ruby,” “It’s Too Easy,” and “Bells of Harlem” among them – are more than engaging enough to compensate for any momentary lulls.
A Friend of a Friend is going to end up on my year-end Top Ten list and I would not be the least bit shocked to see it on a number of others, as well. If nothing else, I sincerely hope this album inspires Rawlings to stand front and center a little more often.