Behind The Curtain

Gretchen's Wheel

Futureman Records, 2016

http://www.gretchenswheel.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/12/2016

Like lead into gold, artists often find ways to transmute pain into inspiration. It’s a strange kind of magic, not the sort of gift you’d necessarily wish on a friend, but certainly one full of possibilities.

Last time around, the songs of Lindsay Murray, the singer-songwriter-guitarist known as Gretchen’s Wheel, benefitted from her collaboration with producer Ken Stringfellow of Posies and R.E.M. fame. This time out Murray absorbs those lessons and moves forward on her own, self-producing this relatively brief nine-song, 34-minute album of alternately shimmering and punchy Americana. Another key collaborator does return, as Ira Elliott from Nada Surf is again behind the drum kit, locating smart, tasteful grooves that enhance each of these tracks.

Murray’s memorable voice is once again the center of the action, with a breathy fragility that inevitably reminds of Emmylou Harris, at least until she moves into a pleasantly husky Christine McVie croon. The biggest challenge here as a listener is the overall mood and subject matter, for Behind The Curtain is a peek into the mind of a troubled soul, a travelogue of isolation, depression and disillusionment that’s unrelenting even when the music turns sunny.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Uptempo tunes like the opening “Invisible Thief” marry the sort of jangle and shine you associate with the Jayhawks with an introspective singer-songwriter bent in the vein of Mary Chapin Carpenter. And indeed, this feels like a Carpenter song, a narrator striving to overcome creeping self-doubt: “The sabotage was coming from inside / Wreaking havoc that couldn’t be denied / A perfect disguise, a slow and silent progression / A lazy march in no particular direction.” “Thief” closes with the somber refrain “I only buried my head in the sand because it was too heavy to lift.”

The steady-on lilt of “Younger Every Year” belies a lyric about being haunted by memories: “I’ll never recreate the tableau / Can’t take the emptiness that it shows / And now I can feel giving up / Coming on again.” This downward-spiraling sensation is only accentuated by the deceptively-titled “The Good Things.”

“Live Through You” turns up the guitars for a full-on pitched battle with self that begins with the narrator asserting that she “Ought to leave the house just to prove that I still can.” The gentle “Birds Of A Feather” and the heavy “Petrified Heart” chart the further course of the “cataclysm” befalling our narrator: “’Cause the passage of time has finally extinguished / This petrified heart.”

“Vapors” chimes and shuffles through layered acoustic and electric guitars decorated by bell-like keyboard tones, another reflection on the slow dissolution of self. Lurking at number eight is a highlight: a propulsive cover of Canadian power-poppers Sloan’s “Try To Make It.” There’s a Gin Blossoms-like aspect to this tune, which marries big guitars and a bouncy beat to a downbeat lyric about someone who needs to be coaxed and lobbied to leave the house at all. Our narrator never makes it that far in the closing title track, which finds her wallowing near oblivion: “I dream of things I’ll never be / Seems like a good reason to stay asleep.”

One place where Stringfellow’s influence may have been missed this time around is on the mix, which occasionally obscures the clear star of the show—Murray’s voice—while punching up the guitars and rhythm section. Fortunately this only happens a couple of times over the course of the album.

Overall, Behind The Curtain is a powerful set, a collection that threads melancholy self-examination through a series of shimmery, appealing tunes anchored by Murray’s instantly memorable voice. Count me impressed, again.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


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