Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Mary Gautier Makes My New Favorite Record

Every time I sit down to write about music, I get stuck trying to describe the sound of it. But, that’s the great big gigantic elephant inside the whole thing. Sure, the lyrics and what they mean are important, and yep, you can’t argue with basic genre and form discussions, and, naturally, the harmony/rhythm/melody standbys are necessary, and of course, there’s always the emotional element to think about. But, music is something you listen to, and the most basic thing differentiating one record from another is the sound of it.

Mary Gautier’s brand new “Mercy Now” has a sound I want to swim around in. Or maybe lay on it spread across the floor like a comforting mattress. Or perhaps I want to wrap this whole thing around my body, or at the very least my head, and feel the warmth of it all. It’s a sound that resonates, with plucking acoustic guitars, gently tapping bass notes, swirling Hammond organ chords, insistent yet perfectly balanced drums, throbbing electric guitars, and most of all a voice that sounds just tired enough to be sick of what’s ailing her yet determined enough to make it obvious she’s not giving up yet.

But none of that tells you what to expect, really. Gurf Morlix produced the record, and if you’ve heard his classic work with Lucinda Williams – “Lucinda Williams,” “Sweet Old World” and “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” – you’re going to be in the ballpark. Yet, producing another Southern singer/songwriter with poetic ambitions and distinctly simple melodies created a challenge for Morlix to make sure he could differentiate Gautier from Williams. And, he does. This music is darker, less immediate, and less pop-aspiring than that of Williams.

Williams is a more obviously autobiographical writer than Gautier. Her best work is richly detailed, evocative, and touched with truth drawn from experience. Gautier is less revealing of her song sources. She may be writing from heartbreak, but the details in each song are always a little bit more general. Or, if she conjures very specific imagery, as in the wonderful “Wheel Inside The Wheel,” it’s a list of occurrences from a lifetime of hearing about Mardi Gras, not any actual remembrances of things she saw there.

See, I’ve already moved away from the sound of the record, though thematically, I figured once I’d brought up Williams, I’d better finish off the ways in which she’s different from Gautier right away. I suspect there will be a lot of lazy writers going on about the similarities and not getting into what makes Gautier so special.

“Mercy Now” is an interesting album, a set of ten songs perfectly constructed to move towards an end. Of the first four songs, three are essentially recited over grooves and sound effects from the band. Sound effects is a bad thing to say. The guitars, harmonicas, banjos, et al are there to color the mood, to react to the words and to add to the imagery of the songs. The narrarator of “Falling Out of Love” feels more hemmed in by her experience when mournful harmonica lines and thick electric guitar chords meander around her story. And “Wheel Inside the Wheel” flirts with New Orleans second line rhythms turned inside out, and a deliciously picked banjo line that weaves throughout the song, adding to the Carnival feel without ever putting you inside it, making the song feel like it’s outside time, outside the experience itself. “I Drink” hits the nail on the same kind of head John Prine has pounded on for years, telling the story of a man caught inside the destiny he’s well aware of. Ian McLagan’s organ holds the narrarator to the floor where the bottle lies.

The title track, “Mercy Now,” is interesting. For one thing, it appears to be directly autobiographical, albeit without telling us much of anything about her life. We know she feels her father has worked hard all his life for no reward, and we know her brother is going through something serious. Also, we know that Gautier is of the church, and she feels her church and country need some help. This song is made beautiful and precious by the sound of it. The theme – everybody could use some mercy – is a little trite, but you can’t help but be swept up by its quiet, peaceful delivery and the tone of her voice with its rich Southern accent.

Gautier sings most of “Mercy Now,” but she stretches her voice more on the other six songs. Harlan Howard’s gorgeous “Just Say She’s a Rhymer” and Fred Eaglesmith’s sadly mysterious “Your Sister Cried” show how she can just cut the prettiness from a lovely tune, and add to the emotional power of the words. Her own “Prayer Without Words” is the album’s fastest song. It’s not a rocker, by any means, but her words fly by almost before you can understand them. Again the sound of her voice is the most important thing here.

“Empty Spaces” and “Drop in the Bucket” are both ballads describing a time past the end of a relationship. They’re both enormously beautiful, mournful, and strangely settled. Each benefits from the lovely harmonies of the very talented Patti Griffin, who drops in to help out. Other songs feature harmonies from Gurf Morlix, and I enjoy the way he and Gautier stay so far from each other’s phrasing, but I would love to hear more of the blend with Griffin.

Finally, the album ends with my favorite cut, “It Ain’t the Wind, It’s the Rain.” After all that’s gone before, we come to a song that probably pushes the metaphor of its title a little too far, but which feels, again because of the way Gautier spits out the words, and the thumping power of the drums, and Morlix’s perfectly textured guitar parts, as if it’s liberating. Pain is brought by the rain, but it’s washed away, too. I turn this cut up louder every time I hear it.

This is the record I want to play over and over right now. It’s so warm, so perfectly pitched, so full of depth and openness and spirit. I like it more and more every day. I just can’t really put into words all the ways in which it fills me with sound itself.

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