Mary Gauthier – Rifles and Rosary Beads

Album Review | Proper | Review by Marc Higgins | Stars: 4/5

Mary Gauthier is a distinctive songwriter and performer whose world weary and knowing vocals are a powerful instrument and instantly recognisable. No stranger to writing about her own pain and demons or the grit that gets in the gears of day to day life, Gauthier has used her song writing to work through addiction and her own childhood abandonment as an orphan. Rifles and Rosary Beads, with its songs written as part of Songwriting with Soldiers, a non-profit programme, facilitates bringing together professional songwriters and wounded veterans and active duty military on writing retreats. So these are co-written songs, personal songs where Gauthier tells the stories of veterans and their families, abroad and at home. Such is the power of Mary Gauthier’s writing, voice and delivery that tracks like “Bullet Holes in the Sky” and “Rifles and Rosary Beads” are as strong as the best of her material. Gauthier breathes life into the stories of war scarred veterans getting by on free breakfasts uneasy with the attention of cheering crowds. These are not songs of glory, these are the stories of ordinary people, doing often ordinary jobs, like the female mechanic in Iraq dealing with the emotional fall out to sexual harassment and the dehumanisation of conflict. Mary has an real ability to tell real stories, using the small details to connect to people and everyday life. Here, like Davy from “Christmas in Paradise” stealing a Christmas tree or peddling golf balls, you can see the waitress circulating in “Bullet Holes in the Sky”. These are powerful short stories, social records or mass observation, rather than generic country pop songs written to order. Mary Gauthier’s voice is a thing of beauty and tightly wound power, observing and serving up potent emotional slices of a life lived. Pain connects us all, you don’t need to have lived the life described to be able to connect with the Vicodin pain killer dreams and the way we dull the aches we can’t deal with day to day. Laid bare, with just a little studio sparkle, recorded so closely you can hear the chair and guitar creak on tracks like the amazingly powerful title track Mary Gauthier’s singing and the arrangements lend an intensity to already emotional songs. “Mirrors frighten me, don’t recognise what I see, the stranger with blood on his hands, brother I’m not that man”. The writing is anthemic, eternal and resonates as strongly as earlier songs of regret inspired by conflict like “Waltzing Matilda”. Ethereal trumpet bugles, wordless vocals, occasional squalls of electric guitar, marching drum beats instruments are sympathetically placed to deliver the emotional message of the songs. “It’s Her Love” is a beautiful blues that underlines how it’s the love of others that shield us from the darkness within ourselves or the darkness created by others. The emotion described is real, raw and speaks to us all. Even before you consider the extreme circumstances that have given birth to these songs, the emotion, the regret and pain speaks to us all. This is a powerful album from a powerful writer and performer. A high water mark from a singer songwriter who hasn’t released a less than impressive album and a fine point to enter if you have missed out on twenty years of fine recordings.