Mary Gauthier’s biggest problem may be that she records too much—eight albums in 17 years isn’t Dylan-in-the-sixties productivity, but she’d benefit from a little pruning. Of course, it could be that Gauthier is making up for lost time, since it took her 35 years to write her first song. Before that, Gauthier was variously a New Orleans Catholic orphan, a teenage runaway, a philosophy major, a Back Bay restauranteur, and a real bad, now reformed drunk. In her own way, Gauthier is Karen Dalton in reverse, and whereas she’s not recorded anything as dramatic and arresting as It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best, neither is she rummaging through trash cans, as the worst stories of Dalton’s last years allege.
Nor does Gauthier have Dalton’s beckoning, laconic vocal chops. What she does have is a musically inclined fateful pessimism that makes her a fellow traveler of the lit-folkies: James McMurtry, Willie Vlautin, and their ilk. Having said that, she’s not the most consistent songwriter: Genesis (The Early Years) is the best place to start by culling the prime cuts from her first three albums, including the past-tense “I Drink” and the plain lovely “Our Lady of the Shooting Stars”. Her only album that works as a whole is 2010’s The Foundling, which doubles down on Americana by lassoing in ex-pats from the Band and the Cowboy Junkies, neither of whom has recorded a song as stoic and depressed as the autobiographical “Blood Is Blood” in a long long time. The Foundling’s French cabaret grace notes are touching, yet every so often the production reaches for Hal Wilner territory and comes up slightly. . . boring.
Gauthier’s latest, Trouble & Dawn, goes for the win by stripping down, to eight songs in just over 30 minutes. Lyrically her best (she rewrites “Gone Dead Train” from her own vantage as “When A Woman Goes Cold”), Gauthier probably declined to add a ninth tune to the CD for fear of spurring a wave of coffee house suicides—this is a record as bleak and dispiriting as Plastic Ono Band. And like Lennon’s reputed solo masterpiece, it’s not really as good as you want it to be. Still, you can play "Another Train" at my funeral.
Fortunate to see one of her July 2013 Beacon Theater shows first hand with knowledgeable friends, I was nervous about how Marisa Monte’s live show for this tour would translate to CD. If you know anything about Monte’s output, then you knew a live album was coming— her concert CDs and DVDs occur in approximately equal frequency with her (mostly excellent) studio recordings. But this one would be a test: As I wrote at the time, Monte’s 2012/2013 tour was a slowly moving multicontinental polymedia extravaganza. It’s easy to imagine the consciously objectified music falling apart once the spectacle gets stripped away.
Quite the contrary, without the visuals capturing your bandwidth, a new kind of music for Monte comes through in the Brazil-only Verdade Uma Ilusao: Tour 2012/2013. Her ever-so-slightly downtown version of samba-infused MPB has evolved into the kind of expansive recontextualization that Leonard Cohen captured on Live In London, sans Cohen’s froggy vocals. Monte’s genius move is combining the Brazilian post-punk band Zombie Nation with a string quartet as her backup, creating not chaos but a generational backslap. Recorded in front of a sympathetic artsy Rio audience, Verdade Uma Ilusao isn’t the first place to stop if you want to understand Monte (that would probably be her youthful Charcoal and Roses) nor her best (the spectacularly life-affirming Tribalistas), but it’s the kind of ambient outdoor spectacle that Brazilians excel at (cf. Caetano Veloso’s epic Omaggio A Federico E Guilietta). You know what to do.