Gretchen Peters – Dancing with the Beast
Proper Records – 18 may 2018
It has been a long and steady road that Gretchen Peters has taken, from the relatively quiet reception of strong early albums like her 1996 debut The Secret of Life, to the award-winning Blackbirds, with the also award-winning title track bagging honours at the 2015 UK Americana awards. And even though she was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame back in 2014, this singer has always had a stronger following here in the UK. She also continues her strong bond with British singer Ben Glover on Dancing with the Beast, with him taking joint credit for many songs, including the title track, a different version of which is also included on his recent Shorebound album. Whereas Ben’s is a vocal duet, Gretchen takes the duties alone, with her clear and powerful voice lending more weight to heartbreakingly naïve lines like ‘it isn’t that he doesn’t care about me / if anything he cares too much’. The single vocal, although layered towards the end, also quicker achieves the sense of loneliness the lyric invites, as does the simple electric guitar refrain that replaces the piano on Ben’s version and sits at the front of the arrangement and effectively pushes the feeling of waiting to satisfy.
The writing is very strong throughout the whole of Dancing with the Beast, working very well with the production, which is keen on leaving space for Gretchen’s voice to manoeuvre through her stories. Take the opening track ‘Arguing with Ghosts’, which contains such subtly penned lines as ‘There’s a picture on the wall / we got married in the fall / and I don’t know those kids at all’. Like on the title track, the feather-light brushed drum and barely-there guitar shimmering in the background absolutely nail the sense of desperate loneliness the narrator feels when she despairingly sings ‘at the same old kitchen table in the same old busted chair / I’m drinking coffee, arguing with ghosts’. It’s a reassuring start, because, with the heavyweight writing, the arrangements could easily be overdone, which doesn’t happen. But things certainly heat up on next track ‘Wichita’. Here our narrator is made from strong stuff and Peters’ voice lowers slightly and takes on a harder edge to record a plucky first-person narrator: ‘There may be something wrong with my head, but not my heart / I got a little sister, she’s not dumb like me / I don’t want her seeing things she don’t need to see’. This review is lyric heavy so far, but the writing is so effectively concise and terse, it’s hard not to quote.
The music lightens somewhat on ‘The Boy from Rye’, a slow-paced acoustic guitar and piano-led song that painfully explores the sensitivity of psychological growing pains in teenage girls. Feminism and the female protagonist are the clear themes that link many of these songs, subject matter that has always been there in Peters’ work but, after the #MeToo movement and 2017 Women’s March landing in her writing schedule, she found the vein ran deep through the set, admitting that “it was very easy to kind of go to sleep for a while and just not think about that stuff because we were lulled into complacency for years.” ‘Truckstop Angel’ is another example of a piece that is sure not to shy away from some of the grimmer circumstances of life isolated in a place, being in many ways a companion piece to ‘Wichita’. Here the narrative is first-person again, with our protagonist, a teenage prostitute, talking of meeting clients in the bars and truck stops and slipping into their cars. Such lines as ‘I swallow their indifference / I choke on my regrets’ coupled with sparse piano is another example of the intelligence of the arrangement wringing the most emotion from subtly loaded lyrics. But our narrator is optimistic, looking forward to better, and this steely determination is illustrated through Will Kimbrough’s distorted, spiky guitar lines jumping in at points throughout and drowning out the hopelessness in the repetitive keys.
These are heavy subjects and, much like points on Shorebound, which this set shares many similarities with, they are dealt with unflinchingly by a singer and writer who has plenty to say. But there are more moments of lightness and beauty throughout the set, even on tracks like ‘Lowlands’, a shell-shocked chorus-less piece charting the reaction of a country after the 2016 election. It’s a typically outraged response to the result, as many songs since have been, but among angry crunchy guitar riffs, there is a glimmer of hope and honesty, in this case sonically provided by Doug Lancio’s banjo lines, a sound that cuts through the darkness. But by the end of this splendid album, positivity and simple faith in humankind and love come to the fore in ‘Love that Makes a cup of Tea’, a simple lesson in hopefulness inspired by Peters’ mother. Gretchen herself admitted that hope was not her forte in the songwriting sense, but it’s a wise move to put such a message at the end of a very adult selection of songs that face many contemporary problems and anxieties. The resulting antidote works very well to bind the album and finds a fittingly natural end.
Gretchen Peters has reacted to the adoring reception of Blackbirds by writing an even better album in Dancing with the Beast. It is a recording that tackles deep subjects through strong characters and starkly beautiful song-writing, all kept perfectly balanced by subtly inspired musical arrangements. This is assured, highly impressive work from all involved.
Buy, stream or download Dancing With The Beast: http://smarturl.it/dancingwiththebeast
Gretchen Peters UK Dates
Gretchen is currently touring the UK with special guest Kim Richey. See dates below
19 – Stamford Corn Exchange – Stamford*
20 – The Stables – Milton Keynes*
22 – The Queen’s Hall – Edinburgh*
23 – Sage Gateshead – Gateshead*
25 – Birmingham Town Hall – Birmingham*
26 – The Atkinson – Southport*
27 – RNCM Theatre – Manchester*
30 – City Varieties Music Hall – Leeds*
31 – The Apex – Bury Saint Edmunds*
02 – St. George’s Bristol – Bristol*
03 – Pavilion Theatre – Worthing*
07 – Mareel Centre – Lerwick*
09 – Gate to Southwell Festival – Nottingham
12 – St. David’s Hall – Cardiff*
13 – Cadogan Hall – London*
* = w/ Kim Richey
Photo Credit: Gina Binkley