wears the trousers magazine


gretchen peters with tom russell: one to the heart, one to the head (2009)
June 1, 2009, 9:30 am
Filed under: album, review | Tags: , , , ,

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Gretchen Peters with Tom Russell
One To The Heart, One To The Head •••
Western Songs 

Once a staple of the country genre, the male/female duet album has made something of a comeback of late, with Emmylou Harris and Mark Knopfler’s likeable All The Roadrunning (2006) and Alison Krauss and Robert Plant’s phenomenally successful Raising Sand (2007) just a couple of recent examples. It seems that many contemporary listeners would agree with the words of John Prine, whose 1999 album In Spite Of Ourselves found the lucky Mr. Prine duetting with Harris, Iris DeMent, Dolores Keane, Lucinda Williams, Patty Loveless and others: “There’s something about two people singing to each other or about each other and finally with each other that sounds really good to me.”

This album of Western-flavoured and focused covers finds underrated country singer-songwriters Gretchen Peters and Tom Russell getting in on the act. Well, sort of. Note the significant “with” in that billing. Unlike the evenly apportioned Harris/Knopfler, Krauss/Plant and Prine albums, One To The Heart, One To The Head is in fact very much Peters’s show, with Russell’s contributions really adding up to just a handful of cameos. This seems a shame, or at least a wasted opportunity. Peters is a fine, empathetic singer and her solo performances here are all convincing and compelling. But the most memorable moments are those in which the two singers are interacting, Peters’s expressive vocals rubbing up against Russell’s burly, Johnny Cash-like tones. Despite this slight disappointment, One To The Heart, One To The Head remains an evocative and engaging record that transports the listener to the plains, prairies and cantinas of the American West.

Perhaps surprisingly, the album’s spare and tasteful arrangements are mainly piano based, with keyboardist Barry Walsh frequently taking centre stage alongside Russell’s regular collaborator Joel Guzman, whose enticing accordion work adds texture. The record opens with Walsh’s gentle instrumental ‘North Platte’ before segueing into Peter’s touching take on Mary McCaslin’s ‘Prairie In The Sky’. A particularly ragged-sounding Russell doesn’t wheeze in until the third song, joining Peters for a committed trawl through Bob Dylan’s ‘Billy 4’ from Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid. Ian Tyson’s ‘Blue Mountains Of Mexico’, Russell’s own ‘Guadalope’, Rosalie Sorrels’s ‘My Last Go Round’ and a singalong version of Bonnie Raitt’s ‘Sweet & Shiny Eyes’ are nicely rendered, while Jennifer Warnes’s ‘Prairie Melancholy’ provides a fitting, quietly epic closer. But the highlights come mid-disc, with a haunting and moving take on Stephanie Davis’s ‘Wolves’ and a lovely take on Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Snowin’ On Raton’.

According to Russell, “there was no motive in putting [this record] out, except a love for the West”. Indeed, One To The Heart, One To The Head sounds very much like a record made with love and for fun, by a group of musicians whose respect for each other and for these songs is palpable. There’s nothing here to change your life but this is a thoroughly pleasing listen.

Alex Ramon
UK release date: 08/06/09; www.myspace.com/gretchenpeters

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