Album Cuts

Susan Gibson
The Hard Stuff
For the Records

Texas-based Americana singer-songwriter Susan Gibson is best known for penning the Dixie Chicks’ “Wide Open Spaces,” among the greatest country records of all time. While never matching that kind of success again, Gibson has still been able to churn out solo albums, including her seventh, preceded by the title track single. The Hard Stuff is just that – a personal testimony of life’s travails and triumph via perseverance and strength. And unlike previous albums of hers, this one takes in new musical approaches, embracing influences such as jazz and funk.

The country-dotted “Imaginary Lines” convinces that despite life’s categorizations, there is a oneness, a commonality, that shows no distinctions; it also serves as a metaphor for life’s journey. The steady “Hurricane” picks off the same country landscape. The title track, another highlight, employs funk-inflected horns. The infectious “Lookin’ for a Fight” conjures up violent imagery and brutal honesty of the common hardened man, whereas “The Big Game” describes the hunt for committed, almost-controlling love (“I tend to shoot before I aim,” “I want my way with you, do what I want you to”). “Diagnostic Heart” likens the hospital setting to the pain and hurt of heartbreak and relationship turmoil. On the upside, “2 Fake IDs” describes youthful innocence and romance, and the folk-strummed “Wildflowers in the Weeds” reads like a poem full of vigor in seeking personal betterment and attainment.

Draped in mellifluous vocals and evocative anecdotes, The Hard Stuff successfully merges common Americana and singer-songwriter themes with heartfelt sincerity. Gibson proves to be an exceptional storyteller as well, focusing on different situations that sum up a hard experience. After going through the loss of loved ones, The Hard Stuff encapsulates healing and growth.

by Jeff Boyce

Helene Cronin
Old Ghosts and Lost Causes

The opener “Careless with a Heart” features the lyric of “lacy-veined alive with fire and blood/Beating strong through all the damage done/Always only made to love,” which is inscribed inside the CD jacket and serves as a theme to the album, which is coated in reflective and narrative folk-driven Americana. “Humankind” continues this thread, touching on community and compassion from a nurse to a person requiring attention and selflessness, while “Riding the Gray Line” connects different people’s journeys through a Greyhound bus (“we’re all here for different reasons”) to the commonality of the human experience, from “washed-out vagrants,” “honeymooners traveling cheap,” “the runaway,” and “a family fresh from Mexico,” a sentiment presented in the similarly-styled “Mongrels and Mutts,” which emphasizes the beauty of diversity. “In a Kiss” and “The Last Cowboy” are acoustic-stamped romantic confections, while “God Doesn’t” pits hardships from the devil against the unwavering uplift from the song’s hero.

There are some upbeat numbers. “Mean Bone” employs bluesy jurisdiction and is sung with daughter Alexandra, capturing the realities of passed-down negative familial influences that are ingrained in one’s psyche. The inner-demon-retrospective “Devil I Know” intersects at the junction of rock and country music, containing prominent drums set to modern country-hued vocal stylings. “El Camino Fly” celebrates a carefree lifestyle – in another country music-propelled drive – as “long as you’re by my side,” she sings. But the last tune is recorded as a solo endeavor in a haunting fashion, sung through the perspective of a dead husband (“I thought if I was faithful I would join her in the air/But now I see this in-between is the hell I’m damned to bear/It’s best if she believes I’ll be there when she goes”). This “Ghost” ties into the thematic structures of the album: contemplative, morose, and optimistic.

by Jeff Boyce