There's an ever so slightly stuffy air of the self-conscious about Gillian Welch and her old-time folk music project, at least here on her second album, which is the one by her I know best (directed to it via a MOJO list). Welch was born in New York City and raised in Los Angeles, going to college at Santa Cruz, where it is said the Stanley Brothers reached out and touched her. She hooked up with her musical partner David Rawlings at Berklee. It's a funny background, but she's obviously a natural at this. It doesn't hurt any, of course, to have T-Bone Burnett twiddling the knobs and playing keyboards. The sound is loose and sparkling tight at once, clarified so every string and vocal croak practically can be heard vibrating—beautifully recorded, no surprise of course. Welch's singing holds the center of attention with a reedy commanding confidence, an ability to slip and slide around the notes and words and push against them in convincingly achy ways. And all the playing is fine as can be, shaped and textured and felt. A scan of the titles fleshes out the themes: "The Devil Had a Hold on Me," "Miner's Refrain," "Rock of Ages," "My Morphine." They are all originals, which vexingly then raises questions of what she has to tell us about the devil, miners, morphine, etc., or even yearlings for that matter. It's vexing because they are good questions. "Miner's Refrain," for example, puts me in mind of Harlan County U.S.A., a very fine movie. It sounds like it could play there, dropped in with any of the other musical sequences. But suddenly I realize I am hearing it more convincingly in terms of a shared experience over an acclaimed documentary than some bulletin from elsewhere, "down in a hole," let alone with urgency of narrative. It is as if Welch imagines herself into these dust bowl scenarios and then riffs off that, which is fine I suppose, especially for an early album, testing and trying things. I'm approximately at the point where I start to understand some of the generalized carping one hears about a presumed lack of authenticity, but I'm not sure it's fair, or even necessarily right. But I will say I appreciate Hell Among the Yearlings most when I take it on admittedly superficial terms, as tracks thrown up very occasionally into the shuffle stream or the album whole played through start to finish in track order a few days in a row to get the feel for it. Otherwise I don't pull it out.