JUDE JOHNSTONE – Living Room (BoJack BJR2221960-3)

Living RoomAs I noted in my review of her previous album, Johnstone is better known as a songwriter than a performer in her own right, her work having been covered by many of Americana’s great and good. As such, Living Room, often stripped to basics with minimal arrangements (the sleeve is just a black and white photo of her and a piano), might be seen more as demos for potential covers by artists looking to add some extra class to their albums than a spotlight for Johnstone herself, but that would be to overlook the quality she brings to her own material.

It opens simply with ‘Is There Nothing’, just voice, piano and Bob Liepman’s cello unveiling the end of a long relationship as she watches her partner walk out of the door to be with his new lover, the tune co-composed by the wonderfully named Blessing Offor, a former contestant on The Voice. Indeed, there are several collaborations, both in terms of music and lyrics, here, the second up being ‘My Heart Belongs To You’, a co-write with Nielson Hubbard and the ubiquitous Ben Glover, the latter part of the backing vocals while David Brewer contributes penny whistle and Johnstone sounds like a female Tom Waits. Glover not only also shares a credit on the similarly themed, Gaelic-flavoured piano waltz ballad ‘Seasons Of Time’, but also sings lead while Johnstone harmonises and accompanies and Olivia Korkola adds violin to the cello and whistle.

She also takes a vocal backseat on ‘That’s What You Don’t Know’, co-writer Hunter Nelson stepping up for a dreamy, pedal steel caressed evocation of some 40s ballroom slow dance on a song about how the screen persona of its celluloid star hides the sadness of the man behind the smile for the camera.

Her vocals back in the mix behind the piano, the reflective ‘All I Ever Do’ adds percussion and David Pomeroy’s fretless bass to the pedal steel and whistle with Tim Hockenberry on harmonies as the lyrics mix loss and hope in the lines “It’s a lonely life I’m living/But I’m gonna wait and see/What this old, broken-down world/Has left for me”.

Again featuring cello and pedal steel, ‘One Good Reason’ is a wholly self-penned song of a relationship in crisis, but not yet past the point of no return (“We’ve got so much to lose/You’d never be so blind/Or fool enough to choose/To leave it all behind”), while, shifting rhythm patterns, ‘Serenita’, co-written with Maggie Doyle, sung by Brandon Jesse, Johnston duetting on the chorus with Linley Hamilton on trumpet, turns to storytelling about a wedding doomed to tragedy when a storm blows in, the groom left waiting at the chapel and now drinking away his despair.

Another solo Johnstone credit, here with Matt Rollings adding accordion to cello and pedal steel, ‘I Guess It’s Gonna Be That Way’ strikes a seasonal note, although its theme of being alone at Christmas with your regrets, through the actions of your own dysfunctional heart, is on the bittersweet side of festive.

The final two numbers are both all her own work, Nick Scott and Hockenberry accompanying on upright bass and trombone, respectively, for ‘So Easy To Forget’, a song of the hurt of being let go that essentially revisits Jim Reeves’ Am I That Easy To Forget’ from the female perspective of “an ordinary fling” who’d hoped for something more. It ends in total solo mode with ‘Paradise’, a song about past dreams, present laughter and future hopes that play out as a wistful piano ballad but which, in other hands, could equally as easily be transformed into a Springsteenesque full-powered anthem. That’s the sign of a real songwriter; the album serves eloquent reminder that Johnstone superbly embodies the singer half of the hyphenate too.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: www.judejohnstone.com

‘One Good Reason’ – live:

GRETCHEN PETERS – Dancing With The Beast (Scarlet Letter/Proper PRPCD148P)

Dancing With The BeastHaving enjoyed her biggest success to date with the Ben Glover co-penned southern gothic ‘Blackbirds’, it is, perhaps, not too surprising to find echoes in Dancing With The Beast. In terms of narrative, the slightly swampy ‘Wichita’, which Glover also co-wrote and which features Jerry Douglas on Dobro, is another murder ballad, this time round a mentally handicapped 12-year-old girl taking a gun to protect herself, her dysfunctional divorced mother and little sister from an abusive man as she sings “I hope I was the last thing that you saw that night in Wichita”.

More specifically, the politically pointed ‘Lowlands’ traces a similar melody to the Grammy winner’s refrain on a song written in response to the 2016 election with lyrics reflecting the sense of disquiet about a man who “lies just for the sake of lying.. sell you kerosene and call it hope.” This one’s not written with Ben Glover, but he does have three co-write credits, the first up being the album’s opening number, a three-way split with Matraca Berg, a melancholically, world weary reflective song about growing old and times changing as she sings “I get lost in my hometown, since they tore the Drive-In down”, perhaps carrying with it hints of incipient Alzheimer’s.

Throughout the album, she’s backed by Doug Lancio on guitar and synths, guitarist Will Kimbrough, keyboard player Barry Walsh, bassist and John Gardner on drums, the songs populated with a variety of female characters and driven by a feminist perspective. The moods vary. On the dreamy, piano-backed ‘The Boy From Rye’, steeped in the insecurities of female adolescence, it’s one of wistful reflection on a summer romance with a boy from out of town who, “His smile knowing and ironic” divided friendships as “One by one he broke our virgin hearts/And set us one against the other”. In contrast, the more musically muscular but equally poignant ‘Life Is A Disappearing Act’ turns its gaze on a middle-aged woman who, widowed after fifty years of marriage, having lost two babies at birth and a son to the Iraq war, mentally and emotionally rather than physically, now finds herself alone, lonely and isolated, trapped in a “dark cocoon” and “crying at the kitchen sink” , “if Jesus is comin’ soon And if he is, he better make it quick”.

She turns the mirror on herself, and any touring musician, for the whisperingly sung ‘The Show’, which, accompanied by a simple acoustic guitar and piano, reflects on life on the road, “somewhere between Bend and Birmingham”, drinking hotel coffee that “tastes like kerosene”, saving up the energy for “Nineteen songs and one more night to go”.

Clearly, it can take its toll (“I clutch this guitar to my chest and wonder just what I’ll have left/When all of this hard traveling’s finally done”), especially on sustaining a relationship, and she reprises the theme on ‘Lay Low’, where, “a good three hours to Aberdeen”, she sings how “Tonight I’ll call to say hello, but your phone’s just gonna ring I know” and of the need to take some time out to recharge.

The other two Glover co-writes play back to back. Like ‘Blackbirds’, they’ve both recorded their own versions, the title track here to be found on his current Shorebound album, both swelling towards the end and featuring a nervy acoustic guitar line, but her’s without the prominent strings and the drums held back until towards the end and Kim Richey on background vocals. A song about that voice that whispers in your ear that you’re no good or you can’t do it, be it depression, a sense of insecurity or whatever, and how the best way to deal with it is to “circle round the room together /Seal this devil’s bargain with a kiss.” However, lyrics like “It isn’t that he doesn’t care about me/If anything it’s that he cares too much /It’s only that he wants the best for me /It’s only that I don’t try hard enough” also lend themselves to an interpretation of an abusive relationship that chimes with the #MeToo movement, especially given the confessional and emotionally bruised way Peters’ delivers the lines.

The second, underpinned by Walsh’s piano and again echoing Blackbirds’ melody line, is ‘Truckstop Angel’, a variation on ‘Honky Tonk Angels’ that addresses prostitution and self-respect as the character sings of being unsure if she’s predator or prey, but that “One day I’m gonna leave here /Gonna hit my lucky streak, Gonna spread my gorgeous wings and fly/Above all this concrete”.

At the end of the day, this is an album about rising above the weight and the burdens, imposed by both others and yourself, a simple humanity and moving epiphany found in the gorgeous ‘Say Grace’, Douglas on dobro and Richey on backing, taking refuge in faith or friends as the lost, the despairing, the bruised and the broken are welcomed to share in prayer at shelter by the bus station depot, the lesson of the day being “Forgive yourself for all of your mistakes You can start all over if that’s what it takes… You are not a loser, you are not a hopeless case” .

It ends with just her and a fingerpicked acoustic guitar for ‘Love That Makes A Cup Of Tea’, a song that, born of a dream about her late mother in which “she held my hand and she said, ‘You know, honey, there is love that makes a cup of tea’.” In many ways an echo of the blessing in ‘Kindness’ on Glover’s album, it’s a celebration of how, for all the big dramatic moments, of “love that moves a mountain” or “love that fights for justice knowing justice won’t be done”, sometimes the smallest, simplest human moment can be the most profound. There is sadness, there is weariness, there is trepidation, but, as the conclusion to Lowlands notes, at the end of the day there is also hope, because “We get a lot of clouds here in the lowlands /But now and then a little light gets through.” This is a beacon.

Mike Davies

Artist’s: website: www.gretchenpeters.com

‘Disappearing Act’ – official video:

Gretchen Peters announces new album

Gretchen Peters
Photograph courtesy of BBC

Described by Uncut magazine as “One of Nashville’s greatest talents”, Gretchen Peters is releasing new album Dancing With The Beast next month. It’s the follow-up to 2016’s acclaimed record Blackbirds, which was named Album of The Year by the Americana Music Association.

It’s with some anticipation that the record is being released, and she has put together an especially timely record, with the contributions of Matraca Berg and Ben Glover amongst others. Dancing With The Beast puts female characters at the fore, from teenage girls to old women. And intentionally so. With the 2017 Women’s March and #MeToo Movement as bookends to her writing time, Peters knew that a feminist perspective would be the critical core of the record. “Those two events just put everything — as so many things in 2017 — in really stark relief,” she admits. “You can trace the feminist DNA in my songwriting back to ‘Independence Day’ and probably before. The thing that 2017 did is just put it front and centre. It was very easy to kind of go to sleep for a while and just not think about that stuff because we were lulled into complacency for eight years.”

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

‘Disappearing Act’ – official video:

BEN GLOVER – The Emigrant (Proper Records PRPCD136)

The EmigrantBen Glover comes originally from County Antrim but it was clear from his first album that his heart dwelt several thousand miles to the west. Since then he has moved to Nashville and become The Emigrant of the title. You might assume that the subject of the album would be the Irish diaspora but it goes deeper than that. Yes, there are songs of people who are a long way from home with all the emotions that brings but there are also the stories of people who have no real home and live on the edges of society.

The album opens with a robust version of ‘The Parting Glass’, which I always tend to think of as a mournful song, forgetting that the final words are “Goodnight and joy be with you all”. In the context of this album, I suppose it represents the optimism of the emigrant at the beginning of his adventure. The title track is possibly the most autobiographical of these songs, albeit a co-write with Gretchen Peters, but I found it a bit heavy-handed on first hearing, especially in comparison with Ralph McTell’s ‘From Clare To Here’. Then again, very few writers have Ralph’s ability to paint a picture with so few words. It’s growing on me, though.

Three characters who live on the fringes, for whatever reason, are the ‘Moonshiner’ who does what he does from choice, in part at least; the prisoner in ‘The Auld Triangle’ who has no choice and the veteran whose choice was denied him in Eric Bogle’s epic ‘And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’. Each one of them is in search of a place to be.

Musically, Ben blends his Irish heritage with his love of the sounds of Nashville. Eamon McLoughlin’s strings and Skip Cleavinger’s uilleann pipes and whistles add the traditional notes while producer Neilson Hubbard provides the bass and percussion and is one of three pianists employed on various tracks. I confess that I find Ben’s vocal style rather intense and when he tries to wind it back sometimes it becomes a gravelly growl although he does capture the weariness of ‘From Clare To Here’ without sentimentality.

The Emigrant is an album that takes its time with you and it took time for me to appreciate its musically subtleties. Ben Glover’s fans will have no such problems.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: www.benglover.co.uk

‘A Song Of Home’ – audio only:

The Essential Gretchen Peters

The Essential Gretchen PetersTwenty years on from Gretchen Peters’ debut solo album, The Secret Of Life, comes a career retrospective double CD set – half greatest hits, half demos and rarities. Gretchen is almost as well known as writer of songs for other singers and a collaborator as for her solo work so her guests on these tracks include some major names: Tom Russell, Bryan Adams, Ben Glover, Matraca Berg and Suzy Boggus.

The set opens with the crunching guitar of ‘Blackbirds’ from her most recent solo album but with her wide-ranging experience there isn’t a single Gretchen Peters sound. Most of her songs are built on her acoustic guitar, of course, but the wistfulness of ‘The Aviator’s Song’ and ‘On A Bus To St. Cloud’ are in complete contrast to the anger of ‘When All You Got Is A Hammer’. I think I prefer her angry.

There are musical touches that don’t let your attention wander. ‘The Matador’, a song reminiscent of both Leonard Cohen and Suzanne Vega, features accordion and percussion that sounds like distant fireworks and ‘Sunday Morning (Up And Down My Street)’ has organ and bells – not “churchy”; the organ is electric and the bells are a glockenspiel, I think, but the feeling of Sunday morning in suburbia is perfectly captured.

The second disc includes a radio edit of ‘Pretty Things’, a live ‘Woman On The Wheel’, a piano-based interpretation of the traditional ‘The Cruel Mother’ and several demos and work tapes. Notably among the latter is ‘Five Minutes’, which appears in full on the hits disc. And don’t forget the cover of ‘Wild Horses’ with Berg and Boggus.

There is a huge variety of styles and moods here and, moreover, some superb songs. If you don’t know Gretchen’s music this is the perfect way to get acquainted

Dai Jeffries

The Essential Gretchen Peters (Proper PRPCD134)

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

‘Five Minutes’ – live in the studio:

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: