Tag Archives: Mary Black

Album Review: Gretchen Peters – Hello Cruel World

31 Jan

Hello Cruel World: damaged goods make for a fine album of sanguine songs

Hello Cruel World: Gretchen Peters shows you the dark side - and how to survive it

What a trying year Gretchen Peters had in 2010. Worldly and personal challenges hurled themselves at her from every direction. Man-made disaster in the Gulf of Mexico devastated the shore around the Florida bolthole where she writes her songs. Her adopted hometown of Nashville was stricken by catastrophic floods. And one of her oldest friends committed suicide. On the bright side, she married her pianist Barry Walsh after a 20-year relationship; and her child revealed that he was transgender – a shared journey that she says she found inspiring and disorienting in equal parts.

Songwriters of lesser skill might have walked into all the melodramatic traps sprung by such a discomfiting and extended period of life experience, and turned them into a self-indulgent misery fest, shot through with the well-worn leitmotif of the stoic survivor. Not so Peters. “The grain of sand becomes the pearl,” she sings on the title track of her album Hello Cruel World, setting the scene for an unflinching but ultimately hopeful response to her recent ride on the Big Dipper of life.

There’s no hint of smiling bravely through the tears here. Instead, Peters’ lyrics roll with the punches as she picks her way through the wreckage of “Natural Disaster”, the sanguine home truths of “Dark Angel” and a meditation on the testing of faith, “Saint Francis”. Some tracks enter mesmerising art-song territory: the starkly beautiful “The Matador” with its heart-breaking accordion (courtesy of Peters’ husband Barry Walsh); and “Woman on the Wheel”, which takes an old fairground attraction as a metaphor for the listener’s insidious fears.

Peters further proves herself a past mistress in the art of darkness with the glorious “Five Minutes”, a country-tinged torch song that quietly shows how the lingering power of an eternal passion will always manage to disrupt the most mundane, workaday life. “Camille” follows in similar vein, its muted trumpet intro (from Vinnie Giesielski – Peters has surrounded herself with some serious musical talent) heralding a bleak tale of the other woman that is expertly wreathed in whisky vapours and midnight smoke. And “Idlewild” is a throat-catching child’s-eye vision of parental dislocation (and an interesting comparison with Mary Black’s recent take on a similar theme, “The Night Was Dark and Deep”).

It sounds like strong meat for a casual listen but Peters’ essential optimism and resilience mean that even in its bleakest moments, Hello Cruel World offers much more than a fix of suffering for those who tend to roam across shadier emotional plains. Redemption, a tad weary and accepting of the trials that have gone before, comes with the gentle “Little World”, which seizes gratefully on the familiar comforts of home.

This is Peters’ sixth solo album. And thanks to the gimlet-eyed take on life that informs her lyrics, a voice that sings the story straight, and arrangements that imbue the songs with a stark, poignant beauty, it’s an absorbing transformation of adversity into art.

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Album Review: Mary Black – Stories From the Steeples

19 Jan

“Marguerite and the Gambler”: story-singing at its best

Stories from the Steeples: a masterpiece from Mary Black

What a fine singer Ireland’s Mary Black is. Unfussy, gimmick-free and capable of switching from confessional intimacy to assured declaration in the space of a phrase, she always puts the song’s story first. The effect can be breathtaking, catching out the listener with a vocal catch or a sung-through line that will break your heart or make you laugh out loud, depending on the lyric.

In years to come, Black’s new album Stories from the Steeples (her first new set since 2005) might well come to be seen as her masterpiece – and considering the quality of her work throughout the last quarter of a century, that would be some achievement. Few singers would have the ability to pull together such a disparate collection of songs – modern folk numbers, soft Celtic rock ballads and a delightful bonus track, the pastiche chanson “Fifi the Flea”- and weave them so effectively into the cohesive whole of this record, which ranges across a rugged emotional landscape, full of troughs and challenging heights.

The thrilling story-song “Marguerite and the Gambler”, the troubadour’s jaunty, evocative signature tune “Mountains to the Sea” (written by Shane Howard and Neil Murray, and featuring an unexpectedly sedate and subtle duet between Black and Imelda May), and the joyous, shambling “Walking With My Love” (on which Black is joined by Finbar Furey) provide the album’s top notes. But the listener is never lulled into a false sense of security. There are shades of darkness in many of Black’s interpretations: the bleak, calm-after-the-storm assessment of a relationship’s uncertain future (“Faith in Fate”); the searing anti-war song “All the Fine Young Men”; and the measured reassurance of “Steady Breathing”, a song written by Chris While to comfort his ill sister.

Janis Ian puts in a welcome appearance on “Lighthouse Light”, contributing guitar and vocals to a simple, foot-tapping meditation on distant threats and prayed-for safety.  “Wizard of Oz” is a touching summation of the longed-for qualities that provide the narrative of the much-loved children’s story, turning them into a mature exploration of the chasm between hope and realistic expectation. And “One True Place” makes a sweet case for some kind of afterlife.

For me, though, the standout track is “The Night Was Dark and Deep”, which evokes a universal experience of childhood that echoes into adulthood, with its lingering traces of vulnerability and the realisation that despite our parents’ best efforts to conceal trouble, an insight into their unhappiness is a rite of passage for everybody.

Black has produced the album with Billy Robinson and throughout, she has the support of a driving, vibrant band led by Bill Shanley and Pat Crowley. Stories From the Steeples is a majestic piece of work that yields new treasure with each listening.