Mary Gauthier. Rifles & Rosary Beads. Proper Records

digitalcoverofficial3000x3000Mary Gauthier is no stranger to hurt and heartache, despair and gloom. Over the course of seven albums she’s relayed her own troubled past – adoption, drink, drugs, brushes with the law – and done so brilliantly rising to the top of the current crop of singer songwriters. Rifles & Rosary Beads is another album of troubles and woe with Gauthier’s wearied and resigned voice, as always, capable of conveying a multitude of emotions. The difference here is that Gauthier is relating the pain and trauma of war veterans, the songs having their gestation in a series of song writing workshops where she sat down with US veterans and transformed their experiences into song.

Songwriting With Soldiers is a non profit organisation started by Darden Smith which encourages veterans to share their experiences with professional songwriters. Weekend retreats feature workshops and the resulting songs are performed and recorded with participants given a CD to take away along with other memorabilia of the retreat. Download copies of the songs recorded are then made available to the public with the veterans involved and the artist given song writing credits Gauthier (along with a list of other well known artists) has been involved in the project for several years and Rifles & Rosary Beads is her “commercial” version of some of the songs she has co-created over those years, all of whom were consulted and agreement given that the record be made. A portion of the sales generated will go to Songwriting With Soldiers.

You can read an interview with Gauthier here which goes into some detail about the song writing process, however in the studio she has recorded the songs very much in her usual manner such that anyone not knowing of these songs’ gestation would just be marvelling at yet another very fine Mary Gauthier album, The War After The War and Morphine 1-2 could easily sit on any of her other albums – the former song was crafted when Gauthier sat with six spouses of veterans who explained their ongoing difficulties dealing with the emotional fallout from war on their partners (with all six listed as co-authors). While there’s a strident, almost martial edge, to the opening song, Soldiering On, the album as a whole is set in Gauthier’s familiar laid back style. Iraq portrays a female soldier’s experience of sexism from her supposed comrades, Rifles And Rosary Beads is a vivid picture of a soldiers totems and fears and It’s Her Love is a devastating portrayal of a veteran’s reliance on his partner’s support. The album closes with an anthem of sorts, a cry against the indifference meted out to many wounded and troubled service men and women as Gauthier sings that they are Stronger Together.

Rifles & Rosary Beads is a powerful and emotive listen. It’s Gauthier doing what she does and doing it well. Beyond that it raises the profile of the forgotten wounded (and surely here in the UK there’s a need also). You can hear many of the original songs recorded at the retreats here.

 

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Ben Glover. The Emigrant. Proper Records

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Although Blabber’n’Smoke hasn’t previously reviewed any of Ben Glover’s albums his is a name which has cropped up several times.  He co-wrote Gretchen Peters’ wonderful Blackbirds, winner of ‘International Song of The Year’ at the UK Americana Awards back in February and he was one third of The Orphan Brigade who released the very fine Soundtrack To A Ghost Story around a year ago.

An Irishman who has lived in Nashville since 2009 Glover was drawn to consider the theme of migration as he was going through the process of getting his Green Card. Of course Ireland has had waves of emigrations over the centuries but the current political climate, dominated by the plight of refugees across the globe and the ensuing backlash and rise of xenophobia assures that this resulting album has a topical purpose. For all that it’s far from a polemical album. Instead Glover has reached back to popular and traditional Irish songs that evoke feelings of displacement and exile  and to these he has added four songs, three co-written with Gretchen Peters, Mary Gauthier and Tony Kerr, the title song, commenced in Ireland and finished in collaboration with Peters being the starting block for the album.

Co produced with fellow Orphan Brigadier, Neilson Hubbard, the album stays close to its Irish roots, the instrumentation is spare; acoustic guitar, piano, fiddles, Uilleann pipes, whistles the primary instruments. Glover skilfully wrests the traditional and cover songs from any cosy sense of familiarity, the arrangements breathing new life into them while the presence of his own songs prevents the album from becoming a set of “well kent” Irish songs, the album as a whole a powerful listen.

Opening with a stirring rendition of The Parting Glass, the upbeat tempo belying the air of farewell within the song, Glover immediately takes us into an Irish heartland, a fiction perhaps of a jolly lot managing their loss through alcohol, oft posited by numerous screenplays. Aside from a slight return to a toe tapping moment on the traditional Moonshiner, another song with drink at its centre, the rest of the album is a more sombre affair, the reality of alienation and loss hitting hard. A Song Of Home, one of the originals is a magnificent effort, glover’s voice yearning, at times approaching Van Morrison’s stream of consciousness repetitions, the song celebrating the landscapes, mists and mysteries of a remembered homeland. The title song follows opening with plangent piano, a Tom Waits’ like moment considered perhaps but it then swells with Uillean pipes as Glover dissects with his poet’s scalpel the curse of the emigrant, “to be cut loose from all you knew, beyond the pale, beyond the blue…the restlessness, the discontent…” It’s a deeply moving song that stakes its claim immediately to be considered part of the folk canon. The co-write with Mary Gauthier, Heart In My Hand, is a roving fiddle fuelled ramble while Dreamers, Pilgrims, Strangers is a very brief reiteration of the lines inscribed within the album sleeve, Glover’s alternative to Emma Lazarus’ words welcoming emigrants to the USA.

Woven between these bitter pills are the familiars. Ralph McTell’s From Clare To Here, Glover more impassioned than McTell’s original, more bereft. The Auld Triangle wrings out all the emotion it can from this well travelled song with a touch of Shane McGowan to be sure in here. The Green Glens Of Antrim closes the album and again Glover summons up ghosts and memories, an emigrant looking back through rose tinted glasses, delivered here like a Hibernian Tom Waits. Finally Glover manages the almost impossible task of breathing new life into a song that through familiarity has somewhat lost its original impact. He tackles Eric Bogle’s And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda with a raw vocal and a tremendous arrangement, half Waits, half Weill as he snarls and rages, finally collapsing into a bereft croak, the band playing on.

It’s not that often that an album captures such a terrible zeitgeist but Glover here lays down a powerful challenge to those who just see immigrants taking up their council houses and jobs. Several of these songs should accompany news items but that’s too grand to ever happen. Still, there’s social media there to spread his message. On a more local level we should mention that Glover is appearing at next week’s Glasgow Americana Festival performing in the round with Boo Hewardine and Roddy Hart (information here).

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Mary Gauthier. Trouble and Love. Proper Records.

There are some artists whose albums are almost guaranteed to burn a place in your heart and head, who stay true to their course with each release offering the listener an opportunity to share in their thoughts, and sometimes, their emotions. They are few and far between and long gone are the days when the likes of Dylan or Neil Young could be counted amongst them. I would proffer Sam Baker as an example but Mary Gauthier probably tops the list these days. With her well documented troubled youth behind her she was a late entrant to the music business but all of her albums have been raw yet warm emotional torrents delivered almost perfectly in a spare style with her laconic voice hypnotic.
Trouble and Love is no departure from her tried and trusted template and as such should delight those who already hold her in high regard. For others it’s as good a place to start as Gauthier delivers eight world wearied laments that ooze hurt and pain all delivered in a laid back soulful country shuffle. Recorded on the back of a broken relationship Gauthier says
“This record is about losing an attachment I actually made. The loss of it was devastating because I hadn’t fully attached before to anyone. Writing helped me back onto my feet again. This record is about getting to a new normal. It’s a transformation record.”

Gauthier virtually takes the listener through the phrases of grief as the album goes from a sense of hurt on the opening When A Woman Goes Cold, a slow burning blues which builds in intensity as the hurt moves to anger and bitterness to the resignation and acceptance of the closing song Another Train where she sings “I’m moving on through the pain, waiting on another train.” The anger is muted on the folky reminiscences of False From True as Gauthier looks for clues as to what went wrong as the band offer a comfort pillow with what sounds like a cello supporting her vulnerable voice. Oh Soul begins the healing process and in contrast to the preceding songs the tempo is upped and Gauthier is joined by Darrell Scott on vocals for this Gospel outing where she seeks to find succour from a visit to Robert Johnson’s grave. It’s a tremendous performance soaked with sadness and loss but hinting at a light at the end of the tunnel as the uplifting harmonies remind you of the eternal quest for salvation and hope. Worthy is another soul searching song as Gauthier stumbles in the dark still trying to make sense of it all but the final three songs are redemptive although the hurt still lingers. Walking Each Other Home is an excellent weary ballad while How To Learn To Live Alone is a primer on getting back on the tracks with a steely determination to the lyrics that reflects Loretta Lynn’s grit. With fine lonesome guitar picking from Duane Eddy over a lethargic country rhythm Gauthier picks up the pieces with a stoic heroism. Another Train does point to the future and while Gauthier remains wounded and the song moves as sluggishly as Mississippi mud a shining guitar solo hints at a new dawn coming.

Overall it’s a devastating listen, one for late nights and introspection. Recorded live in one takes Gauthier gathered her musicians (guitarist Guthrie Trapp, keyboardist Jimmy Wallace, bassist Viktor Krauss, drummer Lynn Williams and singers Beth Nielsen Chapman, Ashley Cleveland, Darrell Scott, Siobhan Kennedy and The McCrary Sisters) together without rehearsal, led them through the pieces and hit the record button. The result is intimate, naked and raw.

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Melissa Ruth & The Likely Stories.

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We were intrigued when a few months back an email popped in from Melissa Ruth inviting us to listen to her brand of what she called “doo-wop twang.” Intrigued enough to enquire more and eventually track down a copy of her album Ain’t No Whiskey and glad we are of that. Ain’t No Whiskey sees Canadian Ruth, now living in Eugene, Oregon, setting up stall with her husband Johnny Leal and brother in law, Jimmy Leal in tow (on lead, slide and bass guitar and drums respectively) as she plays a fine set of songs that were kick-started by her purchase of a 1958 Guild Freshman guitar and some time spent delving through old jazz and blues albums. The trio play with a great sense of intimacy and a simplicity that affords Ruth’s writing and her sultry voice plenty of space to impress. Johnny Leal’s spare playing complements Ruth’s choppy rhythm guitar whether they are laying down some late night vibes or channelling the Tennessee Three (on Dusty Boxcar) and the end result is somewhat akin to early Cowboy Junkies colliding with Mary Gauthier.
While she sings superbly Ruth also writes a mean song with the title piece standing out as a blues lament from a woman who can’t find solace in the bottle. This sad state of affairs continues in No One Said Nothin ‘Bout Dancin, a lazy drink laced waltz that woozily meanders along with a similar feeling to that old chestnut Tennessee Waltz. Willing To Fall completes a triumvirate of drink fuelled misery and lost love with Ruth’s voice melting while Leals’ guitar waxes lyrically.
It’s not all downbeat however as Dusty Boxcar jaunts along in an autobiographical vein while Write Me A Love Song breezes along at a pell mell rate. However they are at their best when investigating the downbeat side of life and Cinco De Mayo is a fine impressionistic account of a young man’s longing for a Mexican girl who may or might not be unattainable. Wonderful stuff although we remain somewhat nonplussed by the lack of doo-wop.

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Mary Gauthier. Live at Blue Rock.

Mary Gauthier is a particular favourite of Glasgow Americana fans having appeared here regularly and always beguiling the audience with her world weary observations, her trials and tribulations. So news of a live album caused some excitement at the Blabber’n’Smoke newsdesk and having finally arrived it proudly sits, a true, fly on the wall, unenhanced capture of a show, warts and all. Gauthier bares her soul, intense, emotionally connected to the characters she sings about. Supported by Tania Elizabeth on fiddle and Mike Meadows on percussion this almost amounts to a greatest hits compilation with selections from most of her albums although surprisingly only one from The Foundling, her autobiographical and award winning album.
With all of the songs well delivered its difficult to select highlights although one has to mention the sterling work by Tania Elizabeth whose fiddle playing is superb with a raw tortured feel about it adding a sense of drama to what are already fairly dramatic songs. However Gauthier’s delivery of Last Of The Hobo Kings is spinechilling while Our Lady Of the Shooting Stars is on a par with the best of Leonard Cohen’s sixties output. Our personal favourite here is Karla Faye, the stark tale of a drug raddled Texan prostitute who ended up on death row. The trio absolutely gels here wringing all the emotion out of the song. Karla Faye is followed by Gauthier’s most famous song, I Drink which again sounds superb with excellent fiddle from Elizabeth. The album ends on a raucous note with a spirited rendition of Wheel Inside The Wheel with dervish fiddling and Gauthier totally in command vocally. Cool and assured she rocks here with a vengeance. A great end to a great album although there is an unlisted (and very fine) version of Mercy Now with gospel sounding backing vocals which acts as an encore. An essential buy for Gauthier fans. She’s coming over to play some gigs promoting the album, unfortunately no Scottish dates mentioned so far.
Oct 11th. Bush Hall, London
Oct 13th.The Malbank Studio Theatre, Cheshire
Oct 14th. The Live Theatre, Newcastle

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