review of The Foundling

Here’s another great review (stereosubversion.com) for Mary Gauthier’s new album. If you haven’t heard it yet please take a listen and if you like it…please buy it….

“For as long as she’s been making music, Mary Gauthier has been a storyteller; her records take song seriously, but the details of time and place, of character and theme, even more so. She’s a folk singer in the old-school vein, a troubadour who makes art from the people and places in her life. Look, if you will, to a song like “Mercy Now,” with its intimate character sketches sewn together by the broader tale of God and humanity. Or perhaps “Snakebit,” her terrific revamping of Flannery O’Connor’s savage stories of violence and grace. She tells the story of one of Americana’s great lost figures in “The Last of the Hobo Kings,” and of a whole city in her post-Katrina New Orleans wake, “Can’t Find the Way.”

And the more stories she tells, the more it becomes clear that they’re really all different parts of the same story — the story of her characters, and herself, struggling to find home. The theme dogs her work just as surely as the grim dark figure of the Divine haunts O’Connor’s work, as surely as Tom Waits is drawn to boozehounds and street rats — and if you know her own life story, you can understand why. Abandoned by her birth mother, left in an orphanage until she turned fifteen, turned into the streets to live the life of a wandering musician, ultimately rejected by the birth mother she spent her life tracking down, Gauthier’s whole life has been a search for home.

Not that she seems like the type to put it so simplistically. Her new album, The Foundling, is, finally, the telling of her own story. It is, in many ways, the album all her others have been leading toward, and it’s impossible not to hear echoes of her past characters in these new songs. Here, though, they’re not just stories, they’re autobiography.

Thankfully, Gauthier has enough self-respect to avoid the pitfalls of what an autobiographical album usually entails. She tells her story in gritty detail, but there’s no self-pity, no resentment, no wallowing in sadness. There’s no psychoanalysis, either, and thank God — though she does draw some matter-of-fact links between her past and her chosen craft, noting that the singer can draw on the “kindness of strangers” in place of familial ties. She allows her songs — her story — to drift naturally toward the big questions, and so The Foundling is something much more than a squeamishly-detailed account of a rocky childhood; it’s an album about identity, about self-realization, about who we are and the forces that make us that way. It’s about family, and it’s about grace.

Gauthier recorded the album in Canada, but its musical roots remain in a sort of gothic Americana. What it isn’t, though, is the Spartan blues outlines of the album she made with producer Joe Henry; this one she made with Michael Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies, and while this work is obviously inspired by the sound she explored with Henry, Timmins actually improves on it. It’s a spirited set: the musical idioms employed here are the well-traveled forms of folk and country-blues, appropriate given the sort of weariness of the story told, but there’s a real energy and drive to this set, a sense of pacing that befits the album’s narrative thrust. There is a fullness to it, as well: Timmins employs gypsy violin on several cuts to create a sort of whimsy that makes a nice contrast with the heaviness of the lyrics, and he knows both when to leave things spare and airy — to let the words speak for themselves — and when to decorate the set with some tasteful adornment, as on the album highlight “Sideshow” — a woozy, tipsy fusion of honkytonk with New Orleans brass, and a scene-setting piece that tips its hat to Gauthier’s Louisiana roots.

Gauthier’s story is a sad one, but the way she tells it, it’s hopeful, as well. The sheer beauty of this recording is a testament to that; the way it makes something artful and profound from such grim circumstances is evidence of grace at work, in and through this music, and that alone makes The Foundling a special, one-of-a-kind recording — one that examines and interprets the real-life story of a scarred but resilient human being, and does it in a way that honors both her and her listeners.”

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