Posts Tagged ‘Barry Walsh’

Album Review: Gretchen Peters – ‘Blackbirds’

February 10, 2015

Gretchen Peters

blackbirds250

Blackbirds

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In the months leading up to the release of Blackbirds Gretchen Peters was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and she also performed as part of the Poets & Prophets series at the Country Music Hall of Fame with her husband Barry Walsh. The follow-up to her 2012 masterwork Hello Cruel WorldBlackbirds is the most personal album of her illustrious career.

Peters began the songwriting process for Blackbirds in the summer of 2013, drawing inspiration from a week where she attended three funerals and a wedding. Thus, she explores mortality from varying perspectives, through transcendent bouts of vivid poetry, compositions commanding the listener’s attention without letting go.

The exquisitely bleak “Pretty Things,” co-written by Peters and Ben Glover, serves as the promotional single. A raw meditation on the fleeting lure of beauty, “Pretty Things” is a stunning battle cry about gratitude, and our need to appreciate what we have, while it’s still here.

Peters co-wrote two other tracks with Glover, a musical partner with which she feels both kinship and safety. The songs couldn’t exude a sharper contrast thematically, running the gamut from murder in Southern Louisiana to an account of a snowy winter set in 1960s New York City. The cunning murder ballad is the title track, a vibrant tale of destruction soaked in haunting riffs of electric guitar. A second version, recorded more soberly, closes the album. The wintry anecdote is “When You Comin’ Home,” a dobro drenched Dylan-esque folk song featuring singer-songwriter Johnny LaFave.

Peters, who often does her best work by herself, penned half of the album solo, including the album’s timely centerpiece, “When All You Got Is a Hammer.” The tune masterfully paints the mental conflict raging inside veterans as they readjust to life on home soil. Peters investigates another facet of darkness with “The House on Auburn Street,” set where she grew up. Framed with the image of a house burning down and recounting memories with a sibling, the track beautifully captures quite desperation, but the dragging melody could use a bit more cadence to get the story across most effectively.

Peters takes us to California to examine the mysteries of death on “Everything Falls Away.” She asks the questions that remain enigmatic while gifting us a piano based production that stretches her voice to an otherwordly sphere she rarely taps into, allowing it to crack at the most appropriate moments. Her vocal on “Jubilee” taps similar emotional territory, with a story about surrendering once death is near. Like “The House on Auburn Street,” the melody here is slow, and could’ve benefited from picking up the pace a little.

Her final solely written tune is “The Cure for the Pain,” which she wrote after a weekend in the hospital with a loved one. The acoustic guitar based ballad doesn’t offer much hope, and rests on the idea that the only cure for pain is more pain.

The only outside cut on Blackbirds comes from pop singer-songwriter David Mead. His “Nashville” is a track she’s loved for more than a decade, and she gives it a beautifully delicate reading. In searching for Mead’s version of the song, I was surprised to find a live cover by Taylor Swift, who apparently sang it a couple of years ago in her shows.

“Black Ribbons” reunites Peters with her musical sisters Matraca Berg and Suzy Bogguss, for a tune about a fisherman who lays his wife to rest in the aftermath of the BP oil spill. One of the album’s strongest tracks, thanks in a large part to the inclusion of tempo and the background vocals by both Berg and Bogguss, “Black Ribbons” is a brilliant illustration of despair that serves as a reminder of the pain the fisherman in the gulf went through during that time.

Blackbirds is masterfully lyrical, setting pain to music in a myriad of different contexts that put the listener at the heart of each story. The end result leaves that listener emotionally exhausted, which is why Blackbirds should be taken in small doses in order to fully appreciate all the goodness found within. Peters has been one of Nashville’s strongest female singer-songwriters for well over two decades now, but she’s only gotten better as she’s amassed more life experience and concentrated on creating soul baring masterworks. Like Hello Cruel World before it, Blackbirds is an album not to be missed.

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Album Review – Gretchen Peters – “Hello Cruel World”

February 20, 2012

Gretchen Peters

Hello Cruel World

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It’s extremely rare for an album to knock me for a loop, stop me dead in my tracks, and demand the full breadth of my attention. It’s been so long since music truly moved me, I’d lost touch with the ability to relax and take in the beauty of a master at work. The amount of skill that went into crafting Hello Cruel World was apparent from the first listen. Lyrically heavy, the results are nothing short of stunning.

I came of age during the 90s, so I grew up with the masterful songwriting of Gretchen Peters coming from my stereo speakers. The body of work she set free onto her fellow female artists is just astounding from “Independence Day,” to “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am,” “Let That Pony Run,” to “The Secret of Life.” I was a fan of her work long before I’d ever heard one of her albums.

The album opens with crashing drums and fiddle creating a moody yet steady beat that perfectly compliments the opening line – haven’t done as well as I thought I would/I’m not dead but I’m damaged goods/And it’s gettin’ late. A mission statement of sorts, it serves as Peters declaration towards freeing herself from the demons (Nashville floods and Gulf coast oil spill) that inspired the record.

On the title track, Peters brilliantly plays with the mind pairing moments of abject despair with flickers of hope. She may be the bad end of a shaky deal, a ticking clock, or a losing bet, but she’s still a lucky girl. It’s difficult to work the delicate dance moving between negative and positive, but she executes it with an ease rarely seen.

For most of the project she lays bear the pain and suffering she took from her inspirations.  This is an album from a woman who’s been through hell and thrived. Peters is writing from a place of security, not of anxiety, and it makes for a fully realized portrait of someone now able to receive the the goodness life has to offer.

But what a journey she had to undertake in order to find healing on the other side. The anxiety she’s overcome is still readily at her fingertips, and for listeners, that’s a joy to behold.

On the surface, “The Matador” is the story of a woman watching a duel between a matador and bull and the flourishes of accordion accentuate the spanish flare. But underneath the metaphor is the gut-wernching tale of a woman barely holding on in the face of confrontation – I loved like only a woman can, a very complicated man/I bound his wounds/I heard his cries/I gave him truth/I told him lies.

She comes to hate herself for what’s she done as this affair tears her already shattered family apart. The devastation climaxes when she lets out her battle cry – And he is bull and matador/And I’m the mother and the whore/And this is how the story goes/I knew it when I threw the rose. 

In fully analyzing “The Matador,” the missing puzzle pieces that made composing this review so difficult, are beginning to fall into place. The uptempo “Woman On The Wheel” with its memorable line – As if god was Monty Hall and this was Let’s Make A Deal, puts words behind those feelings of ridicule when someone feels like they’re target practice for everyone’s insults and jabs. It seems odd to comment on production when it’s a secondary element, but I love the acoustic guitar opening and light drums producers Doug Lancio, Barry Walsh, and Peters herself paired with these lyrics.

“Natural Disaster” gives the greatest insight into Peters psyche. The idea “The world ain’t gonna stop for my broken heart,” rings true once again. The weatherman is predicting sun yet she’s hoping for a hurricane to mirror her circumstances. That hurricane never comes, and she sees all the more clearly her ability to survive life’s toughest challenges.

“Natural Disaster” is also one of the most vivid lyrics on the whole album with stunning couplets around every bend  – we tore through each other like an avalanche…like a landslide baby on a suicide run/no thought to the damage done.

Equally heartbreaking is “Five Minutes,” a relationship song about a mother and daughter. She sings of smoking herself to death and of the man she loved all those years ago (Back when you were Romeo and I was Juliet West Texas Capulet and Montague), the one that bore the child she’s now raising. In a role reversal, the daughter is looking after her mother who easily  throws back upwards of three glasses of wine a night.

The relationship between the two is so richly painted you feel for the daughter and her chance to run away and essentially repeat her mother’s mistakes. The production works in the song’s favor here, as the soft piano and equally haunting vocal only add to the desperation in the lyrics.

Completing the beat-up-yourself relationship saga is “Camille” a song about a woman sick with guilt for the life she’s living, but so inthralled with addiction she cannot stop. Co-written with Matraca Berg and Suzy Bogguss, it details the inner turmoil of looking deep within and asking tough questions – And you don’t want to cry/and you don’t want to think/And you tell yourself it ain’t no big deal/And you feel like a fool, and you feel like a drink/And you drink so you don’t have to feel/But you still do, don’t you Camille.

For all the inner and outer affliction Peters grapples with on Hello Cruel World, that sense of inner peace this journey has brought her to comes to light on “Paradise Found” which details the feelings around her 2010 marriage to Barry Walsh. Here is where all the anxiety turns to security in the most palpable way – a loving home. Sonically, with the strong fiddle and drums, it’s the most modern sounding track on the whole project. I love how the beat and dark overtones suggest a journey that isn’t complete, even though there’s comfort in the security of a healthy home life.

For me, Hello Cruel World has made 2012 a very exciting year for music. It’s too bad it came to light in January, only because it set the bar so unbelievably high. I’ve always been a fan of lyrics and this album more than feeds that need within me. This is thinking people’s music from a true master of their craft.

But what strikes me most is the production. Instead of being a straightforward singer/songwriter record (like, say Darrell Scott’s Long Way Home) it has many overtones suggesting it has more mainstream sensibilities. The songs aren’t as quiet or sparsely produced as I expected. I was anticipating more of a folky vibe but instead found something much less heavy  and far more enjoyable.

Country radio won’t touch it with a ten foot poll, but that hardly matters to me, as music this outstanding isn’t meant to be tied down or given genre specifications.

It’s just music. And I couldn’t ask for anything more.