A review by Douglas Heselgrave
I thought I knew the blues. I haven’t always been careful. My life has been full of reckless and foolish mistakes. Like most people my age, I’ve suffered through my share of loss and pain, but it all pales in the shadow of what Mary Gauthier has been through.
Gauthier’s new CD, “The Foundling” is the product of two years work, and is quite simply the best collection of songs she’s ever recorded. An intensely personal album, “The Foundling” recounts Gauthier’s struggle to find her birth mother after being abandoned by her shortly after her birth in March 1962. In the hands of a less capable artist, a concept album about the search for and ultimate rejection from one’s mother would be doomed to failure. It is an idea that could so easily go awry as to be impossible or embarrassing to listen to. There are so many complex emotions involved that it would be easy to give into the temptation to cheapen them, aim at the lowest common denominator, and go right for the listener’s heartstrings. And, while I would defy anyone to remain dry eyed by the time The Foundling’s thirteen tracks have run their course, Gauthier’s work is too mature and fully formed to settle for being nothing more than a vicarious thrill. The emotions described, explored and eviscerated throughout The Foundling’s tale have obviously ripened over the artist’s lifetime and settled in deeply enough to be explored with precision – if not with detachment.
‘The Foundling’ isn’t easy listening music. It’s often hard to approach as it’s so rare to hear songs that reach as far as these ones do. Time and time again, Mary Gauthier resists every temptation to elevate her suffering and put it into a mythical framework as younger artists so often do when trying to communicate their feelings of loss. These are songs stripped of their filters and protection, and are often so honest as to be artless. Yet, somehow Mary Gauthier’s commitment and fearlessness shine through and she gets away with expressing things that a less mature musician would stumble on. She’s aiming so far left of the top forty that she often ends up in territory that is all but uncharted.
The facts of Mary Gauthier’s life have been well documented on her previous albums. Her struggles with alcohol, drugs and the law have all found their way into her music, but until now the motivations or underlying causes of her actions have been rather hard to understand. The story told by the songs on her new disc put all of her past work into perspective and give it more power.
The songs on ‘The Foundling’ follow an arc of fear, expectation and resignation. The first few tracks “The Foundling”, “Mama Here, Mama Gone” and “Goodbye” explore the grief that Gauthier experienced as she struggled to come to terms with being put in an orphanage shortly after her birth. A resolution was made, and at the age of 45, Gauthier searched for, found and was denied a meeting with her birth mother who had hidden her youthful indiscretion from everyone she knew. The brief telephone call with her that Gauthier describes on “March 11, 1962” must certainly qualify as one of the most heartbreaking songs ever committed to tape. Spare in its lyrics, the pain and unfathomable loss are suggested rather than described as she recounts her mother’s wounded plea of ‘why are you calling me?’ The songs that follow it represent a scramble to come to terms with her mother’s unwillingness to meet. From the absolute despair of Walk in the Water’ that rests on the refrain ‘ I want to walk in the water until my hat floats away’, things pick up a bit as Gauthier tries to put her best foot forward with the muted optimism of ‘Sweet Words’ and ‘The Orphan King’ with its unsure assertion ‘ I still believe in love.’ Unwilling to leave her audience in a lurch as her mother did to her, and as if to assure them that she will continue on in her life without succumbing to her personal demons again, Gauthier finishes the album on a strong note with the resolute and inspiring ‘Another Day Borrowed.’
Over the past several albums, Gauthier has worked with some of the best producers in the roots music business. Gurf Molix and Joe Henry have each had turns with her work, and the results have always been worthwhile. Still, it must be admitted that there has always been something slightly generic or incomplete in their approach to her music. Gauthier’s vocal range is somewhat limited and previous producers have gone out of their way to decorate her work and make it appealing to folk, country and blues fans and as a result missed something essential in her songs. This time out, Gauthier chose to work with Michael Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies, and she has finally found a producer up to the challenge of presenting her music in the best possible light. Gauthier’s voice and trademark rhythm guitar accompaniment are still front and centre, but for the first time she’s been given a sympathetic soundscape that elevates her music and gives room for the emotions she expresses to roam and expand. Resting somewhere between rough and polished, Timmins’ guitar is a background wail, an undercurrent over which Gauthier questions and sings. With Margo Timmins background vocals and a yearning violin as counterpoints, for the first time, Gauthier has achieved a musical context that is as profound and satisfying as the songs she sings.
With ‘The Foundling’, Mary Gauthier has created her first masterpiece. It may not be a record that people want to listen to every day or sit through in its entirety very often, but it is great art that reminds listeners of what the blues could be, but rarely are. Not for the easily frightened, ‘The Foundling’ is the most raw, brave and ultimately satisfying album I’ve heard in a very long time. Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.
The Foundling will be released on May 18, 2010-04-20
Watch nodepression for an interview with Mary Gauthier
This article originally appeared at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
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