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Album Review: Gretchen Peters – ‘Blackbirds’

blackbirds250In 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 World, Blackbirds 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.

Grade: A

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Album Review: Gretchen Peters – ‘Hello, Cruel World’

Anyone who has followed country music closely during the past twenty years is familiar with Gretchen Peters, or will at least recognize some of her songs.  Most country music fans, however — myself included — are relatively unfamiliar with Gretchen Peters the performer, despite the fact that she has released nine albums over the past fifteen years.  Her latest effort, released this past January, is far removed from the realm of country music. It is more accurately described as a vanity project with no ties to a particular genre and not intended for mass appeal; in other words, “singer/songwriter.”  Those expecting to hear her take on her compositions that became hits for other artists will be disappointed; no such examples appear here.  Nor are there any songs that are likely to become mainstream hits for others in the future.

It’s interesting to hear how very different Peters’ own recordings are from the mainstream fare that did so much for the careers of the likes of Pam Tillis, Patty Loveless, George Strait, Martina McBride, and Trisha Yearwood.   As the title suggests, this is not a particularly happy album; it is a serious, introspective and often bleak affair, that unfortunately is at times quite tedious to listen to.  Peters wrote or co-wrote all of the album’s songs and co-produced the project with Doug Lancio and Barry Walsh.  The mid-tempo title track was released as a single — Gretchen’s first in 16 years — but it failed to chart.

Not surprisingly, the album’s main strength is its well-written songs, which are quite literate and tastefully produced.  However, I found myself enjoying them more as works of poetry, reading the lyrics in the liner notes than I did actually listening to them.  There is little variety in tempo throughout the album, and like most people who fall into the “singer/songwriter” category, Gretchen is a much better at writing songs than she is at singing them.   Her limited vocal ability doesn’t make it any easier to enjoy songs that I’m not particularly drawn to in the first place.

One song that I did enjoy very much is “Five Minutes”, told from the point of view of a downtrodden waitress taking a cigarette break and reflecting on a life that hasn’t quite turned out the way she planned.  While I felt little empathy for the characters in most of the album’s songs, the story in “Five Minutes” is told quite skillfully, and the listener is immediately drawn in.  It’s a song that I couldn’t help but tune into and pay close attention.  Other songs, though far removed from the mindless fluff dominating the mainstream airways, are confusing and are sometimes borderline pretentious.   “St. Francis”, co-written with Tom Russell, talks about the saint walking on water, playing the role of a beggar, a shepherd and a guest taking a cup of tea at a stranger’s table — all themes that have been used in songs countless times before,  but why St. Francis was chosen to fulfill a role that has almost always been used to refer to God or Jesus, is unclear.   Even more confusing is the bizarre “Idlewild”, told from the point of view of a child riding in the backseat of a car that is en route to the airport on the day of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.  The song’s gratuitous use of a racial epithet earned the album an “explicit” warning from both iTunes and Amazon, and quite possibly other vendors as well.

It’s quite likely that some crisis in Peters’ personal life inspired these songs, and perhaps knowing the backstory would make them easier to relate to.  But one shouldn’t have to have all the inside baseball knowledge in order to enjoy an album.  There is very little here to appeal to most country fans, unless they are also die-hard Gretchen Peters fans or enjoy spending 52 minutes listening to tales of unabated misery, in which case Hello, Cruel World may be just the ticket.

Grade:  C