What does it sound like?:
When Bargepole first sent this to me I was pretty impressed. But after a few close listenings I’ve come to the view that this record is more than that. It is an important record. Important because of the topics Mary Gauthier has addressed, important for the way in her songs bring home the pain and distress of the subjects of the songs(often war vet collaborators in the writing on the songs) and important in how successful she has been in melding these messages into great songs.
So I’ve written a longer review than I intended, but I hope you’ll stay with me.
You don’t put on a Mary Gauthier (pronounced Go-shay) record expecting to be cheered up and this record is no exception. But you do expect wonderful stories, pithy clever lyrics and a strong adherence to melody. Again, this new record is no exception.
But first, some background. Mary is probably one of the pre-eminent folk/country singer songwriter story tellers going around and this is all the more remarkable because she only took to the task in her mid-thirties. Before that was a pretty rotten life of being a runaway drugs and alcohol addiction. To quote All Music “dropping out of her Louisiana high school and stealing the family car at the age of 15, only to find herself in detox at 16 and jailed in Kansas City at 18. Her own wayward path led her to culinary school and, eventually, she opened a successful restaurant in Boston’s Back Bay — Dixie Kitchen — which she sold after her music career started to take off.” Much of her music chronicles the travails of her life. More on this in a moment.
I first heard her on a Dylan Theme Time Radio Show. How’s that for an endorsement? Anyway, he played “I Drink”. How are these for lyrics?
So much explained in so few words.
As it happens Mrs Wells had a couple of albums in her collection and I was staggered at the consistent quality and the remarkable empathy in her lyrics. I Drink is on her third album Mercy Now. Indulge me as I quote those lyrics in full.
My father could use a little mercy now
The fruits of his labour fall and rot slowly on the ground
His work is almost over it won’t be long, he won’t be around
I love my father, he could use some mercy now
My brother could use a little mercy now
He’s a stranger to freedom, he’s shackled to his fear and his doubt
The pain that he lives in it’s almost more than living will allow
I love my brother, he could use some mercy now
My church and my country could use a little mercy now
As they sink into a poisoned pit it’s going to take forever to climb out
They carry the weight of the faithful who follow them down
I love my church and country, they could use some mercy now
Every living thing could use a little mercy now
Only the hand of grace can end the race towards another mushroom cloud
People in power, they’ll do anything to keep their crown
I love life and life itself could use some mercy now
Yeah, we all could use a little mercy now
I know we don’t deserve it but we need it anyhow
We hang in the balance dangle ‘tween hell and hallowed ground
And every single one of us could use some mercy now
Every single one of us could use some mercy now
Every single one of us could use some mercy now
Ain’t that the truth.
The pinnacle of her storytelling came with The Foundling, a stunning album of magnificent songs but one I play rarely as it is so gruelling emotionally. It tells the story of Mary being put in an orphanage by her mother, her decision to find her mother, their meeting and the mother’s rejection of her, wanting nothing to do with Mary in her life. It’s a sad story but told oh so well. Mary played a small outdoor event in the foothills of Gippsland here in Victoria, Australia. Bill Chambers, Kasey’s Dad, joined her band for the show and played some staggeringly empathetic (that word again) long drawn out notes on guitar that magnified the heartache in the songs. Mary was nodding in appreciation on stage and I can still hear that playing to this day. She hung around at the event and I asked her how can she play such deeply heart wrenching songs all the time? Mary replied that she looked on it as a story of triumph, despite all this she is still here. Good onya Mary.
Next show was just Mary and a younger blonde female violinist, Canadian possibly . The show was excellent of course but what struck me was Mary’s fawning over her musical partner. She was clearly besotted with her and it got to the point of being awkward. This is not going to end well I thought. I’ve read that the next album was preceded by a very significant loss. Now it may be about that relationship and maybe it had nothing to do with the violinist, I guess it matters little but but her next album was called “Trouble and Love”. Apparently she wrote a bunch of songs but ditched them as being too dark and wrote new songs for the album so clearly some serious shit was going down for her.And you know what? When it came out I didn’t have the emotional strength to listen to it. Actually, I did listen to the first track “When A Woman Goes Cold” and I thought here we go again! I’m not up for this at the moment. In preparing for this review I revisited it . It’s a really good record with some great musicians adding to the mix. What I failed to notice on first encounter is that the album moves from morose and lovelorn to coming to terms with the breakup and coming out the other side.
Gretchen Peters and Mary have done shows together, done song writing workshops and I think they shared the bill on one of the American musical cruises. ‘How You Learn To Live Alone” was featured on Nashville and the album is up there with the rest of her remarkably consistent catalogue.
I follow Mary on Twitter and she is pretty left in her politics so I was surprised to read she was working with American war vets on telling their stories through song. For starters, I doubt she supported any of America’s recent military forays. I also thought- great she has moved from her own miseries to those of others. But that was a very shallow response on my part. As NPR states “In four years of volunteering with the nonprofit Songwriting With Soldiers, singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier ….and a handful of accomplished songwriter peers have spent numerous weekends holed up with active duty members and their families at secluded retreat centers, collaborating on songs that make tangible the toll of combat. From that body of songs, she’s culled 11 vignettes on her arresting new album Rifles & Rosary Beads,
Rifles and Rosary Beads is not a militant anti war album. Far from it. It is about people and how they cope or don’t cope with great trauma and pain. If anything is Mary’s oeuvre – this is it.
So, finally, onto to the record Rifles and Rosary Beads. In war everyone needs something to hang onto be they rifles or rosary beads. You get the idea of the themses from the song titles : Soldiering On, Got Your Six, The War After The War, Bullet Holes In The Sky, Rifles and Rosary Beads, Brothers, Morphine, It’s Her Love,Zero To A Hundred, Iraq, Still On The Ride, Stronger Together.
The record rocks when it needs to and is intimate when required. Simple military like percussion, swampy guitar and there are even backing vocals and brass on some tracks. Musically I’d say it is very much in the Steve Earle vein when he was in his pomp. Think Fort Worth Blues et al. What stands out is her singing. Mary typically sings with a sort of semi spoken style typical of songwriters who place high importance on their words. But on this album she is singing proper, and, to my ear, singing in a slightly higher register than usual on a few songs .It works fine and I hope that she might tour a band to support the album. More likely in the UK than down here I suspect.
So good band, good production, good singing. But, ultimately, it’s about the words.
Try these on for size.
I was bound to something bigger
And More important than a single human life
I wore my uniform with honour
My service was not a sacrifice
But what saves you in the battle
Can kill you at home
War After The War
Whose gonna care for the ones who care
for the ones who went to war
There’s landmines in the living room
and eggshells on the floor
Bullet Holes In The Sky
But I believe in god and country
And in the angels up on high
And in heaven shining down on us
Through bullet holes in the sky
Rifles and Rosary Beads
Rifles and rosary beads
You hold on to what you need
Vicodin morphine dreams
Rifles and rosary beads
It’s Her Love
When the darkness draws near
And I’m shackled, chained to my fear
And the nightmares howl in my ear
She wakes me up
Reminds me I’m home
Conclusion. In the trailer for the new album (see link in comments) Mary says that art is about telling truths that are hard to tell. If that be the definition of art Mary Gauthier makes mighty fine art. I’m re-enlisting in the Mary Gauthier army.
Rifles and Rosary Beads comes out on January 26, 2018.
What does it all *mean*?
I was exhilarated listening to the recent Dylan gospel tour release. It highlighted the artistic rennaisance a new cause or motivation can trigger. I’m thinking along those lines in relation to this remarkable record.
Goes well with…
A big heart.
Might suit people who like…
Finely crafted songwriting and thinking.