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:

Texan singer-songwriter Sam Baker announces new album

Sam Baker

Central Texas singer-songwriter Sam Baker releases his long-awaited fifth album, Land Of Doubt, on June 21, 2017.

The recording represents a deepening of the approach Baker has pursued since his 2004 debut album Mercy – lyrics pared down to their essence set against the spare backdrop of folk-rock instruments used in a chamber-music way.

But there are a few new twists as well. Working in Nashville for the first time with producer Neilson Hubbard, Baker uses the ‘50s-jazz trumpet playing of Don Mitchell and the sustained guitar textures of Will Kimbrough (producer/guitarist for Rodney Crowell and Todd Snider) to frame the lyrics with a kind of chamber-music folk-rock and to break up the ten vocal numbers with five cinematic-sounding instrumental interludes. Baker himself switches from acoustic to electric guitar for this project.

When Baker first emerged 13 years ago, the chief story was how he had survived a 1986 terrorist bombing in Cuzco, Peru, to reinvent himself as a first-rank singer-songwriter. Five albums later, however, the main story now is his continuing growth as a songwriter – broadening his range and deepening his impact. He continues to perform widely in North America and Europe.

He has also evolved as a painter, and he will enjoy his first major one-man show in Santa Fe in September.

Rolling Stone called his last album, say grace, one of the 10 best country albums of 2013.

Lone Star Music declared that “Baker might be the most captivating songwriter in America.”

Mojo magazine’s Sylvie Simmons argued that Baker’s songs “are simple on the surface, poetry underneath – hence the Townes Van Zandt comparisons…. Even the songs that don’t quote old gospel standards sound like you’ve always known them.”

Washington Post music critic Geoffrey Himes adds: “Baker uses minimalist verse as well as anyone working today. On his fifth album, Land Of Doubt, he further hones that strategy. Whether he is singing about relationships gone wrong, relationships gone right, Vietnam veterans, strung-out single mothers, an awkward wedding or the drought-ravaged Southwest landscape, he employs only a few of the words that would normally be used. With all the distractions carved away, we listeners get to the heart of the matter more quickly and more surely than we would otherwise.”

Artist’s website: www.sambakermusic.com

‘Pony’ – official video:

MY GIRL THE RIVER – This Ain’t No Fairytale (Super Tiny Records STR0006)

This Ain't No FairytaleFirst, some bad news for fans of Cicero Buck. They are no more. Second, some good news, American singer-songwriter Kris Wilkinson and English bassist/writer husband Joe Hughes (co-writer of Annie Lennox’s ‘No More I Love Yous’) have reincarnated under this new name, enlisting, among others, the musical services of electric guitarist Will Kimbrough, acoustic player Max Milligan, Sentimentals drummer Jacob Lundby and Nick Pynn on dulcimer, mandolin and fiddle to mention but a few, with Kristin Wilkinson (no relation) arranging the strings.

Musically, there’s not a major departure from what went before, their soft, folksy, pop-tinged Americana still very much in evidence on the opening track, ‘The Rabbit Hole’, a dreamy, slow waltzing song about need that references Alice In Wonderland and features Tom Moth from Florence & The Machine on harp and again prompts comparisons with Eddi Reader. Likewise ‘The Woods Behind Our House’, a poignant and equally dreamy reflection on childhood days and how old stomping grounds have been swept away by urbanisation that features Pynn on South American tiple with Jonathan Byrd providing harmonies.

However, the missing you themed ‘Come Back To Nashville’ introduces a new element to the music in the form of southern flavoured blues. The genre’s always informed the duo’s work, but it’s noticeably more evident here, the track opening on Wilkinson’s sparsely accompanied voice before the instruments, notably fiddle, kick in and a shuffling rhythm sets in as Wilkinson drops in a nod to Patsy Cline. The blues also provide the musical bedrock for another of her autobiographical reflections, ‘Covington’, a love song to the Louisiana town of her birth, the jogging beat accompanied by some fine interplay between Kimbrough’s guitar and Pynn’s fiddle. Things shift to a slow blues, with brushed drums, musical saw and moody guitar setting the mood for the title track, the story of a doomed small beach wedding caught up in Hurricane Katrina before they got to I do, although the lyrics remain teasingly ambiguous as to whether the couple died (“in the sand they found the bride’s shoe”) and why he was marrying her since everyone knew she wasn’t his lover.

There’s a different shade of blues to the mandocello-backed ‘Where I Belong’, Wilkinson’s smouldering ode to her southern roots and the call they have upon her very much the same feel as ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’. They’ve said the album was intended to pay tribute to old school producers and songwriters, and the honky tonk torch sway ‘I’m Givin’ Up On Givin’ Up On You’ with its saloon blues piano (courtesy of John Garden) is firmly in the style of Owen Bradley with tips of the hat to Patsy and Willie in the process.

They return to rootsier Americana with the softly rolling strings-coloured and dulcimer tinged ‘American Bride’, another autobiographically-informed number, here overflowing with love and pride and written from the perspective of the mother-of-the-bride about a wedding dress worn by herself, her mother and aunt, in the hope of her daughter wearing it too. Swaying on a fiddle backing, ‘Love Is’ comes inspired by Townes Van Zandt and Joni Mitchell and is, basically, a list song enumerating the many different things that love means. Then, it’s briefly back to the blues for the goodtime southern R&B groove of ‘Bring It On Down’, inviting everyone along to the backyard BBQ to ‘grab yourself a cold drink, get something to eat’. You can almost smell the charcoal glowing.

One of the most inspirational songs, the penultimate track, ‘Dollar For The Causeway’, a partly true slow country waltzer, is about having your faith in people restored and being shown kindness in the time of need (here it mentions her chicken-raising Aunt Ella, but it could be any good Samaritan), specifically the relative in the song volunteering to look after the narrator’s kids after her husband skips town with their money and car, the title metaphor referring to the pair of 24 mile toll bridges across Lake Ponchartrain from Covington to New Orleans.

The album closes with, appropriately, ‘The Last Song’, an exquisite all acoustic number and the first to be written for the album, a hesitantly strummed guitar setting the scene before strings and brushed drums sweep in for a crooningly star-kissed dreamy number about mortality and final farewells, moving on ‘like a string through the sky tied to the tail of a butterfly’. A new beginning to a hopefully happy ever after, may there be many more last songs to come.

Mike Davies

‘This Ain’t No Fairytale’ – live:

Gretchen Peters announces new album

Gretchen PetersFresh off her induction into the prestigious Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, Gretchen Peters has confirmed the 9th February release of her new album Blackbirds. Co-produced with Doug Lancio and Barry Walsh and recorded in Nashville, the album features a who’s who of modern American roots music: Jerry Douglas, Jason Isbell, Jimmy LaFave, Will Kimbrough, Kim Richey, Suzy Bogguss and more. But it’s not the guests that make Blackbirds the most poignant and moving album of the GRAMMY-nominee’s storied career; it’s the impeccable craftsmanship, her ability to capture the kind of complex, conflicting, and overwhelming emotional moments we might otherwise try to hide and instead shine a light of truth and understanding onto them.

The eleven tracks on Blackbirds face down death with a dark grit and delicate beauty.

“During the summer of 2013 when I began writing songs for Blackbirds, there was one week when I went to three memorial services and a wedding,” remembers Peters. “It dawned on me that this is the way it goes as you get older – the memorial services start coming with alarming frequency and the weddings are infrequent and thus somehow more moving.”

She found herself drawn to artists courageous enough to face their own aging and mortality in their work (Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Nick Lowe), but noticed all the material was coming from a male perspective. “As brave an artistic risk as it may be for a man, it’s much riskier for a woman to speak about it,” says Peters, whose incredible catalogue of songs—including ‘Independence Day’ and ‘On A Bus To St. Cloud’ — have been recorded by everyone from Martina McBride and Neil Diamond to Etta James and Trisha Yearwood. “Aging seems to be a taboo subject for female singer-songwriters, in part because our value has depended so much on our youth and sexuality. I want to write about that stuff because it’s real, it’s there, and so few women seem to be talking about it.”

In an atypical and unexpectedly rewarding move, Peters teamed with frequent tour-mate Ben Glover to co-write several tunes on the new album, which evokes the kind of 1970’s folk rock of Neil Young, David Crosby, and Joni Mitchell that Peters grew up on, albeit with a more haunted, country-noir vibe simmering just below the surface.

Geographically, the album leaps around the country, with particularly heartrending stops in southern Louisiana at the scene of a crime (‘Blackbirds’), Pelham, New York, where Peters probes the hidden darkness of the leafy suburbia in which she grew up (‘The House On Auburn Street’), and the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, where a fisherman lays his wife to rest after losing everything in the BP oil spill (‘Black Ribbons’). ‘When All You Got Is A Hammer’ is the story of a veteran struggling to adjust to life at home after fighting overseas, while ‘The Cure For The Pain’ takes place in the waning days of illness in a hospital, and ‘Nashville’ brings us back to Peters’ adopted hometown.

Despite the varied locations, the songs on Blackbirds are all inextricably tied together through their characters, whom Peters paints with extraordinary empathy and vivid detail. Blackbirds follows Peters’ 2012 album Hello Cruel World, which NPR called “the album of her career” and Uncut said “establishes her as the natural successor to Lucinda Williams.” If anything, though, Blackbirds truly establishes Peters as a one-of-a-kind singer and songwriter, one in possession of a fearless and endlessly creative voice.

Blackbirds Tracklisting:

1. Blackbirds
2. Pretty Things
3. When All You Got Is A Hammer
4. Everything Falls Away
5. The House on Auburn Street
6. When You Comin’ Home
7. Jubilee
8. Black Ribbons
9. Nashville
10. The Cure For The Pain
11. Blackbirds (reprise)

Artist’s website: www.gretchenpeters.com