Posts Tagged ‘Gretchen Peters’

Album Review: Gretchen Peters — ‘Dancing With The Beast’

June 13, 2018

Gretchen Peters

Dancing With The Beast

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2016 was an unintentionally cruel transitional year for Gretchen Peters. In the span of twelve months, she encountered a myriad of loss — her mom, her dog, and two of her best friends. The results of the US presidential election only confounded her already fragile state of mind.

She turned to music to make sense of it all, which has resulted in her eighth album, Dancing With The Beast, eleven snapshots of gut-wrenching brilliance inspired as much by her personal misfortune and the 2017 Woman’s March, as the #MeToo Movement that swept into our collective consciousness last autumn. Female-centric perspectives lead the record and the listener on a journey both horrifically candid and deeply satisfying.

The album opens with “Arguing With Ghosts,” a meditation on the passage of time that began when co-writer Matraca Berg supplied what became the opening line ‘I get lost in my hometown’ to describe how much, and how quickly, Nashville has changed into a city she no longer recognizes. I, too, struggle with the quickness of life and find great solace when Peters sings:

The years go by like days

Sometimes the days go by like years

And I don’t know which one I hate the most

At this same old kitchen table

in this same old busted chair

I’m drinking coffee and arguing with ghosts

“Wichita” revives the southern gothic murder ballad and the subset of songs about children, both of which were once mainstays in country music. The song is told from the perspective of Cora Lee, a mentally challenged twelve-year-old girl who uses her mama’s gun to kill a sexual predator who robs her of her innocence and takes advantage of her mother. It’s my favorite song so far this year.

The loss of innocence is the foundation for “Truckstop Angel,” which originates from a New Yorker article Peters read twenty years ago detailing prostitutes who work at roadside truckstops. She encountered just such a girl (all of 17-18 years old) in Alabama and composed the song from her perspective:

I meet them in the truckstops

I meet them in the bars

I meet them in the parking lots

And I slip into their cars

They come and put their money down

They come and place their bets

I swallow their indifference

But I choke on my regrets

 

Sometimes they ask me questions

Sometimes they treat me nice

You don’t know what you’ll get

Until you roll the dice

You’re a loser or a winner here

Predator or prey

I’m still not sure which one I am

Or how I got this way

“The Boy from Rye” details the overwhelming insecurities of female adolescence. The lyric finds a town of teenage girls in competition for the affection of a guy who rolled into town one summer with his parents and his sister. It’s horrifying how easily the teenagers surrender their bodies to him:

The girls from school in our summer tans
Suddenly self conscious and uncertain
All in a row we arranged ourselves for him
Waiting to see if we deserved him

One too fat, one too thin
One too many flaws to measure
Impossible to live inside your skin
And serve at someone else’s pleasure

**

One too strong, one too smart
But none immune to love or summer
One by one he broke our virgin hearts
And set us one against the other

We dreamed of boys and kisses on the lawn
We yearned to feel that mystery inside us
And there we were with the summer nearly gone
We’d let that mystery divide us

“Lowlands” is Peters’ take on the 2016 US Presidential election:

And the TV it just lies to keep you watching

Politician lies to get your vote

But a man who lies just for the sake of lying

He’ll sell you kerosene and call it hope

Political-minded songs, especially ones referencing our current President, can be polarizing and tiring, and Peters allows “Lowlands” to intentionally drone on-and-on Dylan-esque without a chorus or a hook; a hint of subtly nodding to her state of mind.

“Love That Makes A Cup of Tea” originated from a dream Peters had about her mother, a woman who would show her affection by baking and knitting. The lyric ends the album steeped in hope:

And there is love that makes a cup of tea

Asks you how you’re doing, and listens quietly

Slips you twenty dollars when your rent’s behind

That’s the kind of love I hope you find

“Disappearing Act” lives in the same sonic vein as “Wichita” with a mainstream-minded production adding a layer of fury to the record. The song wonderfully chronicles the frustrations of life, the yin, and yang of good and bad. The title track details a woman in a marriage where her husband always has the upper hand:

He only comes around when he pleases

He only comes around when I’m alone

He don’t like my friends or my family

He don’t like me talkin’ on the phone

 

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

 

But he takes me in his arms like a lover

He hears my confession like a priest

He whispers in my ear, in the darkness

I’m dancing with the beast

“The Show” finds Peters with ‘Nineteen songs and one more night to go’ until a stretch of concerts draws to a close. “Lay Low” plays like a companion piece, with Peters surrendering to the voice begging her to take some time away and ‘just lay low for awhile.’ She uses “Say Grace” as permission to ‘forgive yourself for all of your mistakes.’

Female perspectives have been the hallmark of Peters’ writing for the whole of her career, whether an eight-year-old girl caught in the middle of destructive domestic abuse or a liberated wife and mother setting her husband free of their crumbled marriage. She says it’s a prism from which to view Dancing With The Beast, and while she’s been writing this way for more than thirty years, her words have never come with this much urgency.

Dancing With The Beast is as masterful as it is bleak. Peters is in a class of her own, especially now that she’s let go of her mainstream inclinations and has been crafting albums for herself and not as a vehicle for other female singers to mine for chart hits. I’m forever grateful for her immense success in the United Kingdom and the incentive it provides her to keep her musical journey alive.

She’s been one of my favorite songwriters since I began listening to country music more than twenty years ago. She’s now one of my favorite artists, too. Dancing With The Beast is among her finest work to date.

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Album Review: Della Mae – ‘Della Mae’

June 11, 2015

Della Mae

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Della Mae

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2015 has already been an exceptional year for releases from roots and Americana based artists. Sets from Rhiannon Giddens, Punch Brothers, Gretchen Peters, Alison Moorer, and Shelby Lynne are some of the year’s strongest; with more standout moments then one can count off hand. The eponymous third album from Della Mae, out last month on Rounder Records, is worthy addition to that hallowed list.

The Boston-bred Della Mae, who formed in 2009, consist of Celia Woodsmith on guitar, Kimber Ludiker on fiddle, Jenni Lyn Gardner on mandolin, and Courtney Hartman on guitar and banjo. The foursome shares the vocal duties on the album, which was produced by Jacquire King.

The album is anchored by Woodsmith’s distinctive voice, deep and swampy, like a preacher sent from a higher power to deliver upon us a message we can’t help but want to hear. Her songwriting prospective is just as sharp, beautifully evidenced on five of the album’s very diverse tunes co-written with Hartman.

Nowhere is the power of her voice more evident then on album closer “High Away Gone,” a gospel-tinged number that recalls Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss’ duet of “I’ll Fly Away” from O Brother, Where Art Thou? “Rude Awakening” blends mandolin, guitar, and fiddle quite sadistically, while serving as a battle cry for eliminating stagnation from one’s tired life. “Can’t Go Back” is a softer ballad featuring gentle acoustic guitar with the thought-provoking hook, “if you never go, you can’t go back again.”

“Shambles” is a stunning folksy kiss-off about a girl carrying on with her life, while her man continues to dig himself into an increasingly deeper hole. “Take One Day” is a sunny banjo-driven change of pace, and one of the best straightforward bluegrass numbers I’ve heard in a long time.

The album’s standout track, “Boston Town,” is the first single. Woodsmith, who penned the track solo, has the guts to create a modern-day workingwoman’s anthem the dives headfirst into wage equality. She beautifully structures the lyric to juxtapose the physical pain of the work with the emotional ruin of disrespect. She drives her message home without hitting us over the head, a fine achievement for anyone tackling a hot-button issue.

Hartman takes the lyrical reins on “For the Sake of My Heart,” a tender ballad about reconnecting with one’s homeland. She also teams up with Sara Siskind for “Long Shadow,” a mid-tempo number beaming with acoustic texture.

To round out the album, the band looked to outside inspirations including covering two tracks previously done by other country artists. They managed to outshine Emmylou Harris with their take on The Low Anthem’s “To Ohio,” which was more grounded then Harris’ wispy 2011 recording. They were less successful on a cover of The Rolling Stones’ “No Expectations.” It wasn’t terrible, but Nanci Griffith proved the song, in her 1997 version, deserves more imagination than they brought.

The album rounds out with Phoebe Hunt and Matt Rollings “Good Blood,” the second true uptempo number on the album, and a vocal showcase for Gardner. Woodsmith has an incredible voice with enough color and nuance to wrap around just about anything and make it her own, but Gardner’s pure twang is just as powerful and a welcomed change of pace.

Della Mae is a very strong album that traverses a wide expanse of ground in a quick thirty-eight minutes. Woodsmith proves she’s not only an incredibly gifted foundation for the group vocally, but she has a sharp pen as well. In a world where there is an embarrassment of riches with regards to banjo, fiddle, and mandolin based groups it’s easy to overlook Della Mae. But to ignore them is to miss out on tight musicianship and four women with unique substantive perspectives.

Album Review: Gretchen Peters – ‘Blackbirds’

February 10, 2015

Gretchen Peters

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Blackbirds

* * * *

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.

Album Review: Kacey Musgraves – “Same Trailer, Different Park”

April 30, 2013

Kacey Musgraves

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Same Trailer, Different Park

* * * * 1/2

A major reason for my disillusionment with modern commercial country music is the lack of the mature adult female prospective that elevated the quality of radio playlists throughout the 1990s. The absence of Matraca Berg and Gretchen Peters songs on major label albums (and the decline in popularity of artists such as Pam Tillis, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Kathy Mattea, Patty Loveless, and Trisha Yearwood) has left a noticeable gap, one filled with unsatisfying party anthems and the occasional attempt at a throwback that just never quite quenches the thirst.

Thank goodness for Kacey Musgraves. The 24-year-old formerNashville Star contestant from Golden, TX is the take-no-prisoners rebel country music needs to get out of its funk.Same Trailer, Different Park is the strongest commercial country album I’ve heard in ages, filled with timely songs that say something relevant to the modern world. She has a way of crafting lyrics that touch a nerve without seeming offensive that goes well beyond her years.

Initially I will admit I wasn’t floored by “Merry Go ‘Round” the way that most everyone else was, because I managed to get it lost in the shuffle when it debuted late last year. I now fully see the genius in it – the striking way Musgraves (along with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne) paints a deeply honest portrait of small town life so simply. She also brings those same qualities to her new single “Blowin’ Smoke,” which includes a genius play on words (literally smoking/wasting time) for added effect.

I found that a main commonality in the records I’ve loved in past few years are lyrics containing interesting couplets, and Same Trailer Different Park is no different. The obvious example is scrapped second single “Follow Your Arrow,” which among other things, brings the equality debate firmly to the forefront:

Make lots of noise
And kiss lots of boys
Or kiss lots of girls
If that’s something you’re into
When the straight and narrow
Gets a little too straight
Roll up a joint, or don’t
Just follow your arrow
Wherever it points, yeah
Follow your arrow
Wherever it points

Say what you feel
Love who you love
‘Cause you just get
So many trips ’round the sun
Yeah, you only
Only live once

To me it’s a shame that the country music industry has evolved into a place where such a song can’t be given its due, especially since it’s not so different from such classics as “The Pill” or “The Rubber Room,” and is an anthem for our times. Personally I celebrate her boldness (which in actuality is pretty tame) and quite enjoy both the banjo driven musical arrangement and her uncomplicated twangy vocal. The track’s overall feel good attitude really works for me.

Another favorite line, ‘You sure look pretty in your glass house/You probably think you’re too good to take the trash out’ opens another confident statement piece, “Step Off,” which plays like the typical breakup ballad sans petty revenge. Also slightly atypical is the similar themed “I Miss You,” another love gone wrong song, but this time with the added vulnerability of actually missing the guy she’s broken up with. It’s nice, and a refreshing change of pace, to hear someone still grappling with feelings towards the ex instead of just writing them off in a typical Taylor Swift type scenario. The gently rocking “Back On The Map” goes even a step further and finds Musgraves pleading for a date, telling the men of the world “I’ll do anything that you ask.”

That’s a far cry from “Keep It To Yourself.” Musgraves does a brilliant job of playing the strong woman here, and like Lee Ann Womack’s (a major influence) “Last Call” she doesn’t buy into an ex’s advances once he’s under far too strong an influence:

Keep it to yourself
If you think that you still love me
Put it on a shelf
If you’re looking for someone
Make it someone else
When you’re drunk
And it’s late
And you’re missing me like hell
Keep it to yourself

Possibly the strongest aspect of Same Trailer is the emotional range Musgraves covers in the songs. Everyone knows that life has its share of euphoric highs and crushing lows, even if most modern music hardly reflects that at all. She manages to pack desperation into the majority of the album albeit her own (“Back On The Map”) or society’s (“Merry Go ‘Round”) but also touches on the idea of finding one’s place in the world, no matter how scary. “Follow Your Arrow” is as much about love as life and “Silver Lining” takes it to the next level, saying “If you wanna fill your bottle up with lightning/You’re gonna have to stand in the rain.” The sunny steel guitar-laced atmosphere suggests she thinks going through life’s fire is a joyous undertaking, and while the outcome might be so, getting there more often than not, isn’t.

Probably the frankest moment of desperation comes from “It Is What It Is,” a McAnally, Brandy Clark co-write that finds Musgraves dealing with the after effects of a relationship in which the pair is ‘so much alike’ they’re doomed to failure, but can’t get enough of each other. I love the simple steel-fronted arrangement and how Musgraves so beautifully brings out the pain on the final chorus by starting it a cappella:

But I aint got no one sleepin’ with me,
And you aint got no where that you need to be,
Maybe I love you,
Maybe I’m just kind of bored,
It is what it is
Till it aint,
Anymore

“My House” comes on the flipside to the heaviness of the other tracks, providing a welcomed respite and chance for Musgraves to show off a playful side (she is young, after all) without resorting to fluff territory. I love the Dylan-esque 60s folk arrangement here a lot, especially the harmonica and upright bass. The humorous and memorable line, ‘Water and electric and a place to drain the septic’ doesn’t hurt either.

The main criticism Musgraves has gotten for the project is the demo-like delivery of the tracks, almost too under produced. I don’t hear it at all because in my opinion this is how music is supposed to sound – uncomplicated and straightforward. One of my favorite people, Luke Laird, produced the album and he did an incredible job of bringing the tracks to life. The album does verge on being a bit too pop in places and I still can’t figure out the metaphor she was reaching for on “Dandelion,” but this is as close to perfect (and country) as a mainstream album is likely to get in 2013. Loretta Lynn, who’s longed for songs that actually say something, should be very proud.

Top 19 Favorite Country Albums of 2012: 10-1

December 6, 2012

Adventurism. Turing convention on its head. Those are just two of the themes threading each of the 19 albums on my list. I’ve noticed my tastes venturing further and further from the mainstream, as radio playlists are marginalized and top 40 acts are less and less interesting. Here’s 10-1, enjoy!

Hello Cruel World

10. Gretchen Peters

Hello Cruel World

Thinking people’s music from a lyrical master, it’s easy to overlook the beauty of Hello Cruel World and cast it off as slow, depressing, and moody. But to do that is to completely miss the point of an emotional woman bearing her soul for all who will listen.

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9. Various Artists 

Kin: Songs by Rodney Crowell and Mary Karr

A patchwork quilt infusing distinct individual moments with simple yet evocative lyrics brought to life by a stellar cast, Kin is a concept project done right. But the marriage of the poet and song master is its greatest achievement, two people from different fields of work, aiming at the same goal – affecting emotion. Look no further than “My Father’s Advice” or even “Mama’s On A Roll” to know they’ve succeeded in spades.

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8. Jamey Johnson and Friends

Livin’ For A Song – A Tribute to Hank Cochran

 One of country’s greatest songwriters gets a tribute from one of its fieriest advocates for tradition. Johnson could’ve done the work solo and still come through with a masterwork, but instead he’s paired with some of the finest vocalists of our generation, elevating simple lyrics into works of art.

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7. The Time Jumpers

The Time Jumpers

Time and again I’ve said it but I really miss the days when Vince Gill brought his class and sophistication to mainstream country. Now its a prime example of you don’t know what you had until it was gone. Like last year’s stellar Guitar Slinger, he’s back working his magic, this time with his stellar string band. A not to be missed delight The Time Jumpers is the convergence of expertly talented musicians and singers coming together to spread their considerable awesomeness onto the world.

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6. Kellie Pickler

100 Proof

Often regulated to singing kiss off songs about men that have done her wrong (“Things That Never Cross A Man’s Mind,” “Best Days of Your Life,” “Red High Heels”) and empowerment anthems (“Don’t You Know you’re Beautiful”), Kellie Pickler became a singer who never quite rose above mediocrity.

Enter 100 Proof, a wham bam thank you maimtake no prisoners unapologetic classic country tore de force that finally matches the music to the talent and for the first time since America first met Pickler on American Idol, makes a statement. A giant leap forward.

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5. Jana Kramer

Jana Kramer 

Haven’t we seen this before? An actress from a television show detours through Nashville to have their fifteen minutes of fame as a country singer. They claim their allegiances to the music, try to sing and look the part, but end up only as a parody of the real thing, a jokester trying in vein to pull of a charade so fake you wonder how on earth this could’ve transpired in the first place.

Luckily they’re not all built from the same tattered cloth. Jana Kramer is the exception, turning the most satisfying and promising debut album in years. I found myself continually mesmerized by her voice and spellbound by her ability to fish through the dreck and find quality music. So this isn’t Storms of Life Part II. But she’s obviously trying and cares to sound country. And not generically pop-country, either. She might not be a revaluation, but she’s the most promising step in the right direction a commercially viable mainstream country singer has gone in years. And I couldn’t be happier about it.

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4. Marty Stuart

Tear The Woodpile Down: Nashville, Volume 1 

Stuart’s latest foray into traditional country refines the formula set by Ghost Train by penning originals with well-chosen covers. He fearlessly wears his love for country music on his sleeve and proves he’s the best teacher any contemporary country singer can learn from, if only they would take his class. A cover of Luke The Drifter’s “Pictures From Life’s Other Side,” a duet with his grandson Hank III, is easily among the best album cuts 2012 had to offer.

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3. Punch Brothers 

Ahoy! – EP

A creative risk like none you’ll hear all year, Punch Brothers fill their Who’s Feeling Young Now companion with brazen eccentricity, wild abandon, and more than enough musical gambles to make anyone dizzy.

They stand out because they’re fierce and bold, charting a course all their own. No one else looks or sounds like them and their underground following is a testament to their originality. Where they’ll venture from here is anyone’s guess.

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2. Punch Brothers

Who’s Feeling Young Now?

Now this is acoustic music I can fully endorse. Where acts like Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers blend too much rock into their sound for my liking, The Punch Brothers take their cues directly from the foundations of bluegrass and build their sound from there. But like their rock counterparts, this isn’t strictly acoustic – odes to pop (“This Girl”) and funk (“Patchwork Girlfriend”) mix in effortlessly and are guided by Chris Thile’s measured vocals and brilliant mandolin playing. For lovers of an adventurous out of the box take on the traditional album format, look no further than Who’s Feeling Young Now, one of the finest albums of 2012.

Calling Me Home

1. Kathy Mattea

Calling Me Home

In the increasingly marginalized landscape of current popular music, realism is as rare a virtue as honesty, with singers churning out products aimed at returning maximum profit at radio and retail without effort towards impact or intention. Music as a means to influence emotion and affect thought is nearly non-existent. Not everyone sees it that way, thankfully, as Calling Me Home is the infrequent exception to the current model, a masterwork forcing us human Beings to venture inward and examine our complacency towards place and the havoc our irreversible actions have had on mankind.

Although the chronicled subjects rise from the Appalachian Mountains, and the day-to-day realities revolve around the “scoundrel and saint” that is coal, the overarching messages in these songs are universal to anyone with a conscious. But even more important is the conveyor, and Mattea brings each track to life with the power of her voice, a ribbon weaving through the complexities of each lyric, driving home every declaration.

At 53, Mattea is singing from the sharpened eye of experience, pondering the meaning of life and death with the vibrancy and vigor of wisdom that surfaces through a life lived with spiritual connectedness to ones own body and mind. And for that reason, Calling Me Home is one of the most important records to come along in a long, long time, a masterpiece of the soul and the earth from which all of us are born.

Album Review – Punch Brothers – “Who’s Feeling Young Now”

March 26, 2012

The Punch Brothers

Who’s Feeling Young Now?

* * * * 1/2

With Who’s Feeling Young Now, the Punch Brothers have completed the musical trifecta (which also includes For The Good Times and Hello Cruel World) shaping my current listening experience. There’s a joy and delight to this album that only becomes deeper and further realized with each play though.

As a rabid Nickel Creek fan, I’ve understood Chris Thile’s genius for more than a decade. But I was hesitant in diving into the Punch Brothers after feeling alienated by his How To Grow A Woman From The Ground. Thile’s knack for high-pitched singing was foreign to my ears and his experimental nature jolted me too far out of my musical comfort zone without smooth transition. But that didn’t stop me from diving into Who’s Feeling Young Now, my first foray into his latest musical creation.

Like any great musical work, the album transports the listener into a world all its own, a place nonexistent on the geological map. The mix of mandolin and fiddle ground the record in a post-apocalyptic meets gypsy-like setting (think “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us” by Robert Plant & Alison Krauss), and the instraments used throughout fuse together to create a sound completely unique and original.

This is most obvious on the opening track, “Movement and Location,” a rousing mix of mandolin, upright bass, and haunting fiddle inspired by former Major League Baseball Player and Cy Young Award recipient Greg Maddux. Thile uses the range of his talents to full effect and brings an otherworldly element to the track by going places with his voice I never dreamt possible.  You’re not likely to hear a more interesting song this year.

Another example of the band’s animalistic prowess is “Patchwork Girlfriend,” a weirdly off-beat traveling circus-like number that opens with a downward fiddle crescendo that leads into Thile’s dazzling manipulation of the mandolin. But the combination of his outlandish yet ordinary vocal delivery proves he’s mastered the comedic undertones of the lyrics, but isn’t trying to reach parody in his delivery.

Going even further into this eccentrically experiential universe is “Don’t Get Married Without Me,” in which strokes of mandolin gel beautifully with frantic bursts of fiddle and touches of banjo. The track benefits greatly from a lack of fullness musically, as the darkness of Thile’s vocal and the harmonies with his fellow band members shine through.

But for all the improvisation going on, Who’s Feeling Young Now has its fare share of “normal” moments, too. The art of Progressive Bluegrass, which the band is categorized under, is to sound completely modern in your approach to the acoustic stylings of Bluegrass while still maintaining a sound mixture familiar to purists. While there isn’t anything traditional about their approach, they hit this melting pot head on. A few of the tracks seem to evoke a touch of pop/rock almost like a roots version of Mumford and Sons.

My favorite of their less funky numbers is the bouncy “This Girl” which elicits the joy of young love and the rekindling of a father/son relationship. The driving mandolin blankets the song in a sunny warmth and the rapid-fire lyrics bring fourth the intensity of his feelings towards the prettiest backslider in the world.

Another standout is the title track, the most pop/rock influecned on the whole album. The opening mix of mandolin and acoustic guitar is heightened by the introduction of fiddle to create a layering of instruments giving the listener the feeling of a full band. It’s my other favorite song on the album because I’m drawn to the receptive nature of the lyrics, in which Thile repeats they tried to tell us and at times we tried to listen to almost primal screams in the final moments of the song. But beyond that, the lyrics, written by the band, are genuinely crafted. The way they’re able to string words together is a work of art.

As much as Who’s Feeling Young Now is an upbeat, full of driving beats, and not-much-heard musical manipulations, there are a few slower moments that add depth to the overall sound. “No Concern Of Yours” may be the closest thing to Krauss’s trademark style, while “Soon or Never” brings back found memories of Nickel Creek’s early days (i.e. “When You Come Back Down” and “The Reason Why”). Of the slower songs, “Clara” is easily the most progressive, and showcases Thile’s higher register, which in the six years since How To Grow A Woman From The Ground, has become a taste I’ve happily acquired.

Like any great acoustic band, time to show off your instrumental abilities is key when giving the audience the fullest picture of yourselves as a band. Plus, its the time to let loose and just play for playing sake. That’s almost unnecessary here, though, because every song more than accomplishes that directive. But, nonetheless, we have “Flippin (The Flip),” a rousing number that gives ample time for Thile to showcase his skills as a mandolin prodigy, Gabe Witcher a spotlight for his fiddle playing, and Chris Eldridge another chance to blend in his acoustic guitar. The less straightforward “Kid A” is also in the mix, and brings the album back to its gypsy-like beginnings.

Overall, in pinning the three albums in the trifecta against each other, Who’s Feeling Young Now comes out on top. Without a doubt, its the most exhilarating album I’ve heard in quite a long time and, in my book, the best country/bluegrass/roots album of 2012 so far. I’ll be quite surprised if any mainstream country release will be able to top this in the coming months.


Album Review – Gretchen Peters – “Hello Cruel World”

February 20, 2012

Gretchen Peters

Hello Cruel World

* * * * *

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.