Posts Tagged ‘Matraca Berg’

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

June 13, 2018

Gretchen Peters

Dancing With The Beast

* * * * 1/2

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: 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: Angaleena Presley – ‘American Middle Class’

October 23, 2014

Angaleena Presley

angaleena-presley-album-american-middle-class-2014-08-1000px

American Middle Class

* * * * *

For her solo debut, Pistol Annie Angaleena Presley took the unconventional approach of self-producing the album along with her Husband Jordan Powell. Released earlier this month on Slate Creek Records, American Middle Class is one of the most authentic creations of self-expression you’ll likely hear all year.

Presley, who hails from Beauty, Kentucky, faced an uphill battle in Nashville where she couldn’t get signed to a major label. Then she landed her big break as ‘Holler Annie’ in the trio also consisting of Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe. As a songwriter, her “Fastest Girl In Town” was a top 5 hit for Lambert and Ashton Shepherd took her co-write “Look It Up” into the top 20.

I’ve always been a fan of Presley’s direct approach to songwriting, where she refuses to mince words in effort to make a point. Her Pistol Annies cuts have been some of my favorites from the trio, and while she doesn’t have the flashiest vocal tone, it works in her favor here.

Presley, who co-wrote the whole album, composed five of the album’s songs solo. “Ain’t No Man” is a brilliantly biting ballad with stunning turns of phrase while “All I Ever Wanted” sets a religiously confrontational lyric to an ear catching shuffle beat. The mix of Presley’s strong vocal with her prominent background vocalist renders “Pain Pills” too cluttered, distracting the listener from the tale of Jimmy, who’s drowning his sorrows in booze and narcotics in an effort to cope with his life.

Presley is at her best when her storytelling prowess remains the focus of a song, and American Middle Class abounds with prime examples. Her self-penned “Better off Red” is a masterpiece of perception, a beautiful reflection on one’s place in our world. Equally powerful is Lori McKenna co-write “Grocery Store,” three minutes of observations culled from a checkout line. The deceptively simple track is filled with gorgeous articulations of our mundane everyday lives and comes together as a dazzling work of art almost too good to be true.

“Life of the Party” teams Presley with her hero Matraca Berg for another mouth-watering creation, this time the pedal steel soaked story of a woman facing the light of day after a night spent with another man. The pair is an irresistible songwriting force, with Berg turning in a co-write on par with the myriad of classics she churned out in the 1980s and 1990s, a feat in of itself.

On “Drunk” Presley and co-writer Sara Siskind cover identical ground as Presley’s labelmate Brandy Clark did on “Hungover,” and they turn out equally as delicious a tune about unappreciative men and their selfish ways. “Knocked Up,” co-written with Mark D. Sanders, is the prequel to “Drunk,” a banjo driven number about an unplanned pregnancy and shotgun wedding that plays like a delightful dark comedy.

“Dry Country Blues,” which Presley also co-wrote with Sanders, paints the gritty glory of small town life down to the drunk boys out to get laid and their female counterparts trying not to turn into meth whores. The self-penned title track, which covers the same ground, boarders on preachy and falls dangerously close into a pandering flag-waving anthem, but she makes it work by bringing in Patty Loveless for a harmony vocal that gives the track an added texture that works well with the formidable arrangement.

“Blessing and a Curse,” co-written with Bob DiPiero, is one of the more mainstream-leaning lyrics on American Middle Class with a bluesy arrangement that works beautifully with Presley’s voice. Even the electric guitar, which dominates, isn’t a hinder but rather an assist to the track’s overall splendor. Another such track is “Surrender,” the record’s closing number and a co-write with Luke Laird and Barry Dean. The ballad is as lush and exciting as it is assessable, and Presley turns in an elegant vocal.

American Middle Class is easily a highlight of 2014 with Presley’s fine tuned prospective on the world expressed through sharp songwriting and immaculate choices in instrumentation. Her decision to co-produce with her husband has given the album an added authenticity that gives the record an artists’ touch, an obvious missing link in the majority of mainstream music today. Presley, who’s the real deal, has filled my heart with a joy I haven’t felt in a long, long time.

I cannot recommend this nearly flawless album enough.

Album Review – Brandy Clark – ’12 Stories’

October 21, 2013

Brandy Clark

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12 Stories

* * * * 1/2

If you’ve been paying attention to country music in 2013 there’s likely one name on the tip of your tongue – Brandy Clark. The buzz about the songwriter behind such hits as “Mama’s Broken Heart” and “Better Dig Two” has been at fever pitch, and it’s easy to understand why with just one listen to her debut record.

Clark has stolen the Linda Ronstadt rulebook that Trisha Yearwood and company made famous in the 1990s, rewritten it, and crafted an album that borrows yet improves upon the past, all the while introducing an artist who is completely and uniquely herself. With12 Stories Clark has redrafted the textbook on how to evolve, and not change, the country genre.

At its core 12 Stories is an exercise in immaculate songwriting. Clark has an innate ability to take hefty subjects and morph them into delicious slices of black comedy, skewing the stories to forgo the ache in an effort to focus on creating little vignettes that play like some of the best episodes of television.

My favorite of these is “Hungover,” a Sara Evans-like co-write with Shane McAnally and Jessie Jo Dillon about a woman’s realization that her drunken man isn’t going to change. Also stunning is “The Day She Got Divorced,” a wonderfully addicting day-in-the-life about a woman’s itinerary the day her marriage officially ends. Reba had it onAll The Women I Am and it was my favorite track on that project three years ago.

“Strips,” the album’s lead single, is the new standard-bearer for cheating songs, with the woman declaring there’s no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion as she ponders killing her husband, stopping only because I don’t look good in orange and I hate stripes. Clark (along with McAnally and Matt Jenkins) has co-written one hell of a clever song, and while the premise is laid on a little thick it works surprisingly well.

“Crazy Women” was an excellent yet low-charting single for LeAnn Rimes (from Lady & Gentlemen), and Clark’s version is good, but lacks the punch of personality Rimes brought to her recording. In addition, “Get High,” the only song Clark wrote solo (and the oldest composition on the album) suffers from a weak hook (‘sometimes the only way to get by is to get high’) that leaves the chorus feeling underdeveloped.

What elevates 12 Stories into echelon of masterworks is the emotional depth Clark brings to the project. She elegantly weaves a series of ballads between the vignettes that rank among the finest moments on a country album this decade.

Weeds-inspired “Pray To Jesus” is a timeless anthem for the working poor that doesn’t stereotype or judge. It acts an affirmation that we’re just trying to better ourselves from within, because the fix doesn’t come from the outside world. It’s the lone socially conscious track on 12 Stories and currently the best song of its kind from this somewhat forgotten sub-genre.

“What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” is a reflection on the pull between right and wrong framed around two married individuals about to cheat on their spouses. Clark is able to get inside the woman’s psyche (I don’t know what scares me most, the ride up, or the ride down) in way that’s both ordinary and extraordinary; exercising both arguments while letting the listener make their own conclusions. The simple beauty recalls Matraca Berg’s “Lying To The Moon.”

Clark and “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” co-writer Mark Stephen Jones teamed up again on “Hold My Hand,” the story of a couple running into his alluring ex-lover, only to have his current love plead for definition in their relationship. Meanwhile “In Some Corner” spins another side of the “Last Call”/”Keep It To Yourself” drunken dialing saga that amazingly hasn’t been played out yet. It’s Clark’s turn to show her moment of weakness and she’s praying he doesn’t call, as she can’t refuse his advances.

The strongest track on 12 Stories comes at the end, with an all too common narrative about a woman who marries the mirror image of her always-absent father. “Just Like Him,” (co-written with Dillon and McAnally) beautifully hits upon the unspoken truth that people marry at the level of their self-esteem, thinking they’re only worth the same-gender role models (or lack thereof) they grew up around. The conviction Clark brings to this song is remarkable, showcasing her incredible knack at crafting tales purely from observances – her dad is the antithesis of this character.

In truth Clark brings that conviction to the entire project. As a child of the 90s, I came of age in the era when music such as this was the rule and not the exception, when artists were allowed to have real problems that were bigger then which truck was going to transport some beer keg to lake whatever down some dirt road littered with bikini-clad country girls.

It makes me sick that every record label in Nashville (even two that confessed to loving it) past on releasing 12 Stories but I’m glad an independent label in Texas picked it up. This is music that needs to be heard. I urge you to pick up a copy, as it’s well worth the money, and time spent listening. Clark is the most important singer/songwriter to come around in a long, long time and 12 Stories is the best album of its kind I’ve heard in many, many years.

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.

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.

 

My “Chaos Theory” playlist

December 26, 2011

Last week C.M. Wilcox of Country California posted his “chaos theory” playlist for 2011. In essence, he mixed all the music he purchased in 2011 into one playlist on iTunes and hit shuffle. The first 20 entries comprised the list.

A couple of commenters did the same, adding their lists to the conversation. I thought it might be fun to see what 20 songs iTunes would pick if I used the same method. My list is below:

1. Alone – Kelly Clarkson

2. Mr. Know It All – Kelly Clarkson

3. NASCAR Party – Julie Roberts

4. The Dreaming Fields – Matraca Berg

5. My Opening Farewell – Alison Krauss and Union Station

6. Honestly – Kelly Clarkson

7. Baggage Claim – Miranda Lambert

8. Away In A Manger – Joey+Rory

9. Love’s Looking Good On You – Randy Travis featuring Kristin Chenoweth

10. Wildwood Flower – Suzy Bogguss

11. Modern Love – Matt Nathanson

12. You Don’t Have To Be A Baby – Del McCory Band and The Prevention Hall Jazz Club

13. Stronger – Julie Roberts

14. Don’t You Wanna Stay – Jason Aldean feat. Kelly Clarkson

15. It Wrecks Me – Sunny Sweeney

16. Blue Velvet – Tony Bennett and k.d. Lang

17. My Name is Emmett Till – Emmylou Harris 

18. Kept – Matt Nathanson

19. Don’t Throw It Away – Foster & Lloyd 

20. Guitar Slinger – Vince Gill

There is some extremely well-crafted music here from some very talented individuals who released new records in 2011. The Emmylou Harris and Suzy Bogguss entires were much better than almost anything getting mainstream exposure and my appreciation for Vince Gill knows no bounds.

While I do wish there was a bit more diversity, whatever popped up is what I went with. In any event it makes for a fun exercise and I enjoyed seeing what iTunes spit back at me on random shuffle.

Favorite Country Albums of 2011

December 21, 2011

Who says real country music is dead? Putting aside the commercial successes that forgot about quality, here is my take for music that mattered in 2011. These albums may not have sold a heck of a lot or even garnered the recognition they warranted, but they achived the mark of great music – the songs came first.

10. Concrete – Sunny Sweeney

Led by the top ten “From A Table Away,” Concrete found Sweeney modifying her sound slightly in order to complete with what’s current on country radio. Of course, her version of slightly is different than most as she’s crafted an outstanding traditional country album worthy of her talents. There are too many highlights here to pick a favorite but the honky-tonkin’ “Drink Myself Single” and the revengeful “Amy” are among the years best songs.

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Album Review – Matraca Berg – The Dreaming Fields

May 22, 2011

Matraca Berg

The Dreaming Fields

* * * * *

Known for writing such classic 90s country as “Strawberry Wine,” “You Can Feel Bad,” and “Wrong Side of Memphis,” Matraca Berg is one of the most prolific songwriters of the last twenty years. And the artists who’ve recorded her music (Reba McEntire, Trisha Yearwood, and Patty Loveless) have gone on to redefine the essence of what it means to be a country singer.

Also a recording artist, Berg has released five studio albums and just returned with her sixth, The Dreaming Fields, her first album in 14 years. Inspired by the sparse 70s singer/songwriter fare she grew up with, Fields mixes impeccable songwriting with pitch-perfect vocals to create one of the best country releases of 2011.

The attention to detail rivals anything being released on major labels, and the quiet production help to elevate this album above your standard indie-country release. What could’ve been lifeless and boring is instantly brought to life by Berg’s confidence in what she’s singing. Instead of merely going through the motions, she puts her heart and soul into each of the 11 songs. Berg grabs you with her emotional delivery and never lets go.

Without even listening to the album, fans should already be familiar with at least two of the album’s songs. Trisha Yearwood brought the title track to new heights on her Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love album and “You and Tequila” is Kenny Chesney’s latest single, a duet with rock singer Grace Potter. And the 9513 reviewed the album’s first single, “Oh Cumberland” in advance of the album.

I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical of hearing Berg’s version of “Fields.” After Yearwood tackles a song, it’s hard to imagine anyone else matching, let alone exceeding, her power and delivery. But, of course, Berg proves she’s more than up to the task. The way she wraps her voice around the tale of a family losing their farm will bring even an emotional ice cube to tears. You know she feels what she’s singing.

And on that note, when listening to the album I could actually hear Yearwood singing some of these songs. It wouldn’t have been a stretch for Yearwood to have put “Silver and Glass” on her Hearts and Armor album.  The story of a girl trying to find her place in the world is one of the best songs Yearwood has yet to record.

Another standout track, “Clouds,” makes such a simple statement – “I only like clouds when it’s raining/they do no good just hanging around” – and conveys so much with so little. It only emphasizes the the importance of a strong hook. When a song is properly executed lyrically, it becomes a poetic declaration. Plus, the lush production and use of harmonica in the intro, break-up the sameness of the preceding tracks and offer a refreshing change of pace in the listening experience.

The uniformity of the production is really the only area worthy of negative criticism. The album rolls along so gently, at times it can feel sleep-inducing. Berg does have up-tempo songs she could’ve recorded, including her excellent “They Call It Falling For A Reason” which Yearwood made a low-charting single in 2008, but to include such a song would’ve tinkered with the pace of the album just enough to throw off the vibe she was after.

Berg mirrored the album after Emmylou Harris’s solo debut Pieces of the Sky, Neil Young’s Harvest and Joni Mitchell’s iconic Blue – three albums from her childhood. She lives up to Harris’s legacy the most; Fields is more than worthy of her influence. Berg sings with the clarity Harris had on her 70s classics, and has a similar knack for choosing songs aren’t the typical country fare that’ll be dated in the decades to come.

It’s just a shame that country radio has all but passed on intelligent music like this – to hear Berg on the radio would be a refreshing change of pace from the muscular country getting crammed down our throats. We do have Chesney to thank for getting “You and Tequila” on the airwaves and, possibly, calling slight attention to this fine recording. You know if Chesney recorded it, it’ll more than likely burn up the charts and becomes a major success.

But it doesn’t matter if country radio passes on the album or not, the music has reached the public and will live on as long as Berg continues to shape her legacy. And as cliché as it sounds, with a voice this stunning, and music this brilliant, let’s hope she doesn’t wait another 14 years to record a follow-up.