Possibly the most shocking statistic I’ve come across in recent times is the following: It is estimated that 7400 current or former members of the United States Armed Services take their own lives annually. This is obviously not just a problem specific to the USA, here in the UK military personnel face the same challenges on active duty and when their tours end. SongwritingWith:Soldiers is a non-profit organisation, founded in 2012 by singer-songwriter Darden Smith, which pairs veterans and active duty military with songwriters to hopefully confirm the old idiom “A problem shared is a problem halved.” With this in mind Mary Gauthier’s ‘Rifles & Rosary Beads’ could well be the most important album you’ll hear this year.
The use of music as a psychological tool is nothing new, “music gives wings to mind” to quote Ancient Greek philosopher Plato, but help for veterans and their families was very slow to arrive and only really started to change, for the better, during World War II with studies into “Shell Shock” or as it is now known PTSD (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder). SongwritingWith:Soldiers not only helps people deal with their issues, but I’d also like to think helps the listener, in some small way, to understand their problems and the impact stressful situations can have on all of us.
This important issue would, of course, be devalued if ‘Rifles & Rosary Beads’ failed to work as an album. We’re all found in the past that good intentions are all very well, but if they fail to result in a successful artistic achievement, then it’s very difficult for the listener to relate to the issues involved. In the hands of Mary Gauthier this is never an issue as she has exorcised her own demons in the past through her music, which makes her the ideal songwriter to be involved in this project and with the likes of Will Kimbrough involved, you know the playing will be of a very high quality.
The songs on ‘Rifles’ deal with a variety of issues that relate to both the military and their families with opener ‘Soldering On’ looking at the relationship between the soldier and the fellow members of his unit “A Soldier’s a cog inside a wheel, up or down, all for one, the closest family I have known” and facing up to the loss of that intense dynamic on returning home. The track builds slowly as acoustic guitars give way to edgy distorted electric guitar and scratchy violin, while drums pound and cymbals crash. The instrumentation giving the track a stark, morose quality ideally matched to the feelings of uncertainty and isolation that change can bring. ‘It's her love’ hangs on the repeated refrain of the song title as a chorus which displays such simplicity and power that nothing else really needs to be said while ‘Iraq’ shines a light on a situation equally relevant at home in the workplace as in the titular country. ‘Iraq’ tells the story of a serving female mechanic and her struggles to fit in with her co-workers in the face of sexual harassment. The song feels even more current in the shadow of the ongoing media coverage of the film industry.
‘The War after the war’ is one of many standouts on this fine album, Written by Gauthier, Beth Neilsen Chapman (who also adds backing vocals) with six wives of serving soldiers, the song is a very powerful statement that raises the question of where is the training for the wives who are left to pick up the pieces. “Who’s going to care for the ones who look after the ones who went to war?” “I'm a soldier too just like you. I serve unseen, caught in between my pain and the pain of someone else.” The song has a stately grace that emphasises the lyrics and still finds room for some nice interplay between guitar and Michele Gazich’s violin. “Landmines in the living room, eggshells on the floor” is a lyric that sums things up perfectly. Gauthier’s mournful harmonica and a mannered Neilson Hubbard drum track gently usher in ‘Still on the Ride’ while Kimbrough’s mandolin flourishes add colour to a song that asks the age-old question… Why them and not me?
One of the things that most struck me on my first visit to the USA over a decade ago was the way in which the military were respected, from discounts in diners to being acknowledged at theme parks and baseball games. ‘Bullet Holes in the Sky’ is another highlight “They thank me for my service, and wave their little flags. They genuflect on Sundays and yes they’d send us back” which musically is a wonderful demonstration of the power of an acoustic guitar coupled with a simple piano melody. ‘Brothers’ reminds us that It’s easy to forget how young most soldiers are when they join up, their naivety can be quite shocking and it takes real bravery to admit your limitations “I thought RPGs were fireworks” a young girl reflects as she struggles to be taken seriously, despite facing the same hardships, enduring the same training and fighting the same battles.
“I Got Your Six” is a terminology that I’m sure will be familiar to most of us. That of someone watching your back and ‘I Got Your Six’ does a fine job of emphasises the bond between soldiers in combat situations, and the vital trust and faith required in the person next to you “At Six o’ clock I’d die for you and I know you’d do the same” which is emphasized by a really terrific deep vocal harmony. ‘Morphine 1-2’ tells the story of a lost helicopter and is given added poignancy by Danny Mitchell’s horn parts which act as a fitting eulogy for the fallen.
The album concludes with ‘Stronger Together’ with Gauthier joined by fellow songwriter Ashley Cleveland and six EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) wives. EOD must surely be one of the most dangerous professions in the world “They’re hurt in places the eye can’t see. We miss the man our husband used to be.” Mary Gauthier has crafted an album with great care of stories that need to be told and deserve to be heard. It could never be classified as an easy listen but it’s poignant, compelling and above all honest. It has the ability to make you think and I’m sure all involved would settle for that.
Rifles & Rosary Beads is released January 26th via Proper Records.
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