Review: Matraca Berg – The Dreaming Fields (Dualtone, 2011)
Matraca Berg – The Dreaming Fields (Dualtone, 2011)
It’s been fourteen years – entirely too long – since songwriter Matraca Berg recorded her last commercially released album, 1997’s Sunday Morning to Saturday Night. Though she’s never found the chart-topping success as a singer that she’s scored as a writer (having penned “Wrong Side of Memphis” for Trisha Yearwood, “Wild Angels” for Martina McBride, “You Can Feel Bad” for Patty Loveless and “Strawberry Wine” for Deana Carter, among dozens of other hit singles and album tracks), critics and fans have treasured her original performances. Unfortunately, when her former label (Rising Tide) closed shop in 1998, her last album found critical accolades that went unmatched by sales, and she returned to writing (including songs for the theatrical production Good Ol’ Girls), live performance and background singing.
Berg’s latest set shows off her talent for writing deeply personal songs that touch intimate, individual memories in each listener. Her songwriting craft and soulful performances suggest a modern-day Carole King, but one flowering at a time when music discovery has become highly balkanized. The funnel of country radio has narrowed further in the last decade, and the channels of indie promotion have simultaneously multiplied and fragmented. Berg’s songs have always been thoughtful, but her lyrics have become more allusive and her performances more subtle and introspective, necessitating longer exposure than a ten-second Pandora needle-drop or snippets woven into an NPR review. Whether her new album gets the hearing it deserves will depend in large part on word-of-mouth from her fans.
Writing in mid-life, the youthful optimism and wistful nostalgia of her earlier songs have taken a backseat to more realistic endings. The album’s title track is a somber elegy for her grandfather’s farm, one in which the golden hues of yesterday share space with the overgrowth and rust of today. The Hollywood dreams of a small town girl in “Silver and Glass” reveal themselves as fading illusions as age presents its inevitable transformations in the mirror. Even Berg’s beloved cherubs, which served as guardians in 1995’s “Wild Angels” (a chart-topper for Martina McBride), have matured into escorts for a bittersweet final journey in “Racing the Angels.” Only 2002’s “Oh Cumberland” (originally recorded with Emmylou Harris for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. 3, revels unabashedly in the warmth of memories.
Berg contemplates the attraction of dangerous liaisons in “You and Tequila” (co-written with Deana Carter, and recently released as a single by Kenny Chesney and Grace Potter), but when vulnerability turns into deceit, a serial cheater’s dalliances catch up to him in the foreboding “Ode to Billy Joe” styled “Your Husband’s Cheating on Us.” Berg’s a deft author of characters, including a battered woman taking a stand and a mother coping with the inexplicable loss of a soldier son; but her best character is often herself. She closes with the ballad “A Cold, Rainy Morning in London in June,” evoking her longing for home and her comfort in having a home to long for. It’s a contemplative, yet passionate finish to an album woven from multiple strands of deep emotion and strong expression.
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