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Some say an artist can't produce much of worth unless they've really lived. And preferably suffered. Mary Gauthier is one of those artists responsible for that myth. She didn't write her first song until she was 35, after chequered years of addiction, running away and runaway success as a Cajun restauranter. Gauthier (pronounced 'Go-Shay' if her Baton Rouge roots are showing) says she 'turned eighteen behind bars'. OK, she was in prison just for the night, but that puts her in the same league as Johnny Cash. And so does her searing honesty, gift for gritty stories and willingness to acknowledge the darker side of life, without fear.
This new album wholly fulfils expectations created by 2002's excellent Filth And Fire, with more of what Rolling Stone called 'American Gothic tales'. It's hard to say whether she's a blues singer into country, or a country singer turned blue, but her sharp poetic words ring with truth, whether she's telling others' stories or her own. "Everybody said you looked real good / But I think you looked stoned / Your sister cried all the way home," she sings on tragicomic wedding song "Your Sister Cried". She makes rhyme seem less of a crime than it often is in lesser writers' hands, and her voice cracks tenderly without affectation; themillion-dollar catch many singers strive for is all her own, like Rosalie Sorrels' younger, slightly wilder sister.
The highlight is the bleakly cinematic resignation of "I Drink", her (autobiographical?) account of inherited ways: "Fish swim / Birds fly / Daddies yell / mamas cry /old men / sit and think / I drink" she moans, with a glimmer of Hammond organ, a slumping snare and tendrils of steel guitar framing her words.
If there's one thing that slightly disappoints, it's the lack ofa live feel to the arrangements. But if you can play and produce as sensitively as Gurf Morlix (who once again provides most of the instrumentation), why bother hiring many other musicians for the sessions? Likewise, it's hard to imagine Gauthier doing covers when she writes this well. It makes you want to see her onstage, cooking up something deep fried which you know is bad for you, but tastes real good.