GRETCHEN PETERS – Blackbirds (Scarlet Letter Records/Proper PRPCD124P)

BlackbirdsOne of last year’s finest albums was Ben Glover’s ‘Atlantic’, and one the finest tracks on that was ‘Blackbirds’, a southern gothic tale of an unfaithful heart murder he co-wrote with Peters and on which she duetted. It resurfaces now for her own version, providing both the album’s title and, with stripped bleak, ominously swelling bonus track reprise, its bookends. Where Glover’s was a brooding acoustic number, Peters, who delivers it solo, colours her first version with a sparse, throaty electric guitar fuzz, restrained organ fills, a fuller chorus and a swelling instrumental break. It’s a different approach, but no less electrifying in its dark power, setting the thematic and emotive scene for the contemplations of death that follow.

It’s one of three numbers she co-penned with Glover, second up being the next track, ‘Pretty Things’, an achingly wearied, musically understated number built around guitar arpeggios that disarmingly harbours a lyric about numbing the pain, the cruel vagaries of fate and life’s “slow parade of losses.” The third, ‘When You Coming Home Baby?’,  sees her duetting with Jimmy LeFave on another downbeat number about separation and desperation as, backed by banjo and Jerry Douglas on dobro, she sings “Cause you got a bottle, don’t mean you have to drink.”

There’s one other co-write, reuniting her with her Wine, Women and Song tour collaborators Matreca Berg and Suzy Bogguss, who also provide backing vocals, for ‘Black Ribbons’, the heady brew of baritone guitars, accordion, banjo, charango and mandola underpinning the sense of anger and helplessness in a tale woven around the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as a fisherman lays his wife to rest. There’s also a single non-original, David Mead’s ‘Nashville’, a gently rolling leaving and coming home love song to the city that, with its twilight skies ambiance, brings a rare note of optimism and light to the otherwise overcast proceedings.

The pull between the need to escape and the desire to stay are evident too on the piano-backed, strings-painted ballad ‘Jubilee’, a nod to her New York childhood that conjures the gospel hues of Randy Newman in its musings of mortality and familial bonds that give a poignant but celebratory tug to the lines “I’m an orphan thirty years on how I miss my father’s voice and my mother’s arms. I was you once, and now you’re me. It’s in this circle that we make a family.” Piano and strings again accompany another song about death on ‘Everything Falls Away’, the sea and the tide serving as the metaphors for loss as she recalls “a voice on the phone saying I’m sorry” and going to down to the sea to remember happier times.

Dreamy yet haunted by an overwhelming hurt, ‘The House on Auburn Street’ again takes her back to those New York days and uses a late 60s childhood memory of a neighbours’ house burning as a metaphor for the end of innocence and suburbia’s underbelly, foreshadowing tragedy in the line “I found you on the roof shooting sparks into your veins and staring vacantly across the green suburban plains.”

Peters says the album is about “lost souls, people trapped in the darkness, or fighting their way out of it”, and that finds its strongest expression in ‘When All You Got Is A Hammer’, a blues underpinned number about injustice, with surly baritone guitar, charango, dobro and Jason Isbell on harmonies, as Peters sketches a powerful portrait of a soldier who “came home from the desert with a medal on his chest”, ill-equipped to fit back in, suffering post traumatic stress, left to fend for himself and unable to “feed his own damn children on the money that he brings home.” Peters superbly catches that sense of impotency and rage in the memorable line “when all you got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

A hospital provides the setting for the despairing ‘The Cure For The Pain’, the final cut before the ‘Blackbirds’ reprise, as with a simple delicate electric guitar and melancholic strings arrangement, the protagonist begins by damning the hell, the “sorry waste”, he’s come to where waiting for death doesn’t come with movie violins, just “machines and medicine”, and ends by blessing the pills, the sheets, the food that you can’t eat and “the damned who walk these halls”, hauntingly recognising that, in a line loaded with both nihilism and empathy, “the cure for the pain is the pain.”

It is not, perhaps, the sort of thing you might put on to lift you from the depths of depression or the contemplation of the inevitable, but such are the glimmers of light shining through these wonderful songs and magnificent performances, that, even at the darkest, Peters’ compassion, anger and sense of the preciousness of the moments we have lead you to not go gentle into that good night, but to rage and say “Goddamn this losing fight.”

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: http://www.gretchenpeters.com/

It’s not on the album, but you gotta love this. Gretchen, Matreca Berg and Suzy Bogguss:


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