It’s surprising that Blabber’n’Smoke hasn’t featured Gretchen Peters before now. Recently inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall Of Fame Peters has steadily built up her reputation as a writer for other singers and a solid performer in her own right. A frequent visitor to these shores Ms. Peters returns in spring and on the strength of Blackbirds she’s well worth seeing. The album is billed in the promotional literature as being about loss and ageing following a bleak period two years ago when she attended three memorial services in short order. However Blackbirds isn’t a morbid listen, instead it’s a defiant and at times uplifting experience. This is partly down to the music here as Peters and her players (who include Jason Isbell, Jimmy LaFave, Will Kimborough, Kim Richey, Suzy Boguss and Jerry Douglas) offer some sterling country rock romps with When All You Got Is A Hammer, a song about a war veteran’s fragile state, ripping away with electric guitar and Dobro zipping about over a mandolin driven rhythm. Black Ribbons has a folkier feel with accordion added to the mandolin although there’s a bubbling undercurrent of churning guitars which add a sense of danger. This sense of danger is apparent from the opening title song which has a chunky guitar bite that recalls Neil Young’s Harvest era as Peters unfolds a grim murderous tale, one she repeats at the close of the album (on an uncredited extra track) however on this occasion it’s much starker with an acoustic accompaniment that reflects the back cover of the album which is like an alt country version of Hitchcock’s Birds.
Peters says that when writing this album she spent time listening to 70’s singer songwriters and this is apparent on the Joni Mitchell influenced Pretty Things which opens like an outtake from Ladies Of The Canyon with Peters singing “I knew a girl who said that beauty kills, dulled the pain with wine and pills, took that slow ride down the hill to nowhere.” A female chorus and reverential keyboards drape the song but the Mitchell influence remains strong throughout and this is repeated on Everything Falls Away although here the template is Blue. Again Peters embroiders what might have been a stark offering from Mitchell with swathes of chords and strings to come up with her own triumphant song. It would be unfair to say that Peters is simply channelling Mitchell and her contemporaries and this is made apparent on the magnificent The House On Auburn Street, a song that captures in words a perfect picture of a past event that left a mark. Peters sings evocatively while the musicians weave a delicate sound tapestry with brushed drums and rippling strings that recalls the groundbreaking work of Fairport Convention on A Sailor’s Life.
In a simpler vein there’s a fine duet with Jimmy LaFave on the yearning When You Coming Home while the stark piano and strings of Jubilee is akin to the best of Jackson Browne in its mesmerising simplicity and awe. The closing song, The Cure For The Pain is another simple unadorned song, perfectly executed and the most sombre note here as Peters defiantly cocks a snoot at whatever life throws at us.
Ms. Peters is bringing a band over for the first time in the UK. Tour dates here