Live: Ain't no depression deep enough

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THOUGH ON record they sound only a pitchfork away from American Gothic, in concert the country duo Gillian Welch and David Rawlings are a picture of sobriety in their grey suits, looking for all the world like young 'uns promenading after church on Sunday. The substance of their songs, and the manner of their performance, speaks of a much darker ecclesiastical influence, however, with songs such as "The Devil Had A Hold On Me", "Rock Of Ages" and "I'm Not Afraid To Die" scorched by the embers of a faded fire-and-brimstone sensibility. There's a strong sense of implacable destiny in their compositions, which are consequently marked by a deep fatalism. Things rarely get better in their songs, and one frequently finds oneself, head bowed, at some graveside or another.

Announcing "Winter's Come And Gone", Welch deadpans: "This is the only happy song on the new record. We like to get it out of the way." She's only half-joking. The couple's onstage personae, though, are at odds with their songs' depressing demeanour; the set is punctuated with a string of laconic asides, most of which deprecate the duo's stagecraft - and when Rawlings spots that Welch has her capo on the wrong fret, they go ahead and play a few bars anyway, just to demonstrate how the song would sound in clashing keys.

Welch's occasional adoption of banjo is explained as "the first prong of our assault on mainstream radio"; the second prong, she adds a few songs later, is that commercial certainty, yodelling. "We listened to pop radio and decided that what we needed was more banjo and more yodelling." And listening to the gorgeous "My Morphine", featuring what must be the laziest, most enervated yodel in music history, one can only concur: this is music of mesmerising power which painstakingly tracks the deepest contours of depression.

The duo's carefully cultivated air of rustic simplicity - the sepia album sleeves, the acoustic settings, the austere beauty of Welch's voice - is somewhat deceptive, however. In performance, the sophistication of their arrangements is more readily discerned, as Rawlings' tiny Thirties Epiphone acoustic threads subtle lead lines of great complexity in and around Welch's banjo or rhythm guitar. The dry, dead tone of the banjo harks back decades to the time of The Carter Family and The Stanley Brothers, whose influence is also evident in the duo's striking mountain harmonies, their voices circling each other in a dissonant dance between faint hope and deep despair.

Welch's vocals, in particular, are marvellously idiosyncratic, rejecting the buxom, cosmeticised delivery of formulaic country-pop to probe the darker corners of her chosen tradition. Slipping casually in and out of falsetto, as if she barely has the will to keep moored in one register, her voice evokes an entire forgotten history of hard times and harsh judgements, instinctive sin and eternal guilt - though it's not always as archaic as it appears. "It's in our nature to leave you with a good killin' song," quips Welch as they lead into the gripping "Caleb Meyer", a traditional enough murder ballad on the face of it - except that in this case, the intended victim fights back and the rapist ends up dead. Neo-traditional feminist mountain music, anyone?