Gretchen’s Wheel: Black Box Theory

You can purchase “Black Box Theory” on Bandcamp, where you can also preview its 10 tracks.

Gretchen’s Wheel is Lindsay Murray (vocals, rhythm and lead guitars, bass, keyboards on all songs), with Nick Bertling (drums on all songs, additional guitar and intro synth on Untethered, additional rhythm guitar and mellotron on The Maze, synth strings on Aftermath, second bass and additional rhythm guitar on A Tourist).

All songs written, produced and recorded by Lindsay Murray at home in Westmoreland, TN. Visit the Gretchen’s Wheel Website, and follow on Twitter & Facebook.

There’s one thing that I’ve seen clearly in 2019…we are going through a true Renaissance of gifted female vocalists in modern-era rock and pop bands. There’s Christina Bulbenko of The Armoires, Linda Karlsberg of In Deed, and now…with great pleasure…please allow me to introduce you to Lindsay Murray of Gretchen’s Wheel.

When you have a distinctive vocalist, full, rich instrumentation, and a set of thoughtfully composed songs, that’s the Triple Crown, an artistic hat trick. “Black Box Theory” had my full and undivided attention within its first opening moments, and sustained my engagement throughout the entire album. It’s a perfect example of the new breed of “homegrown” projects that have risen outside of the major coastal music hubs like New York and Los Angeles.

What makes this album rise to the top is the textures, best displayed on the opening track, “Untethered.” In my reviews, I often like to pick one solid, representative track to hold up as an example of what to share with a newcomer in order to pull them in. This has to be one of the best opening tracks I’ve heard in a long time. It begins with picked, not strummed, electric guitar chords, as Lindsay sings “It was something nice…but the details were gone, when you woke…Falling crumbs from the table, you’ll take what you can get now…” And on the next line of lyrics, BAM, there it is, all of the instruments come in on cue, an insistent, persistent, solid wall, but the genius here is that while the volume cranks up, Lindsay stands firm. Many bands would do something completely different…the opening would be subtle, so would the singer, and when the amp knobs tweaked their way up, the singer would also go from a whisper to a shout. And therein lies the tale of this particular tape, kids…

…this album isn’t about Lindsay keeping up with the music, it’s about the music keeping up with Lindsay. That’s a very subtle, and perhaps gossamer distinction. To give the most distilled essence of what’s happening here, imagine Joni Mitchell fronting R.E.M., but more as a metaphor than a literal “sounds exactly like” motif. Please allow me to break the metaphor down a little further…

…the songs, and Lindsay’s vocals, are the stars at the top of this specific food chain. Lindsay does not sound like Joni, but she shares one singular and defining characteristic in her approach that I would not consider to be common among all female vocalists, and one that makes Joni so unique…she does not radically shift her “attack” to convey radical shifts in the emotion of the lyrics. Picture this in terms of “method acting”…if an actor is “frightened,” they are supposed to scream on cue. If they’re “happy,” they laugh. If they’re “sad,” they cry.

It’s a menu, a list, of how you’re supposed to react in any given situation. And while that sounds reasonable, when you ascribe to the pre-written rules, it also robs you of the element of surprise, and spontaneity.

Lindsay begins with the song, and immerses herself in the mood of the specific lyrics, and stands firm and consistent throughout the song. While she does alter her delivery as the song progresses, the dramatic shifts are largely from the music. Because she doesn’t have a knee-jerk reaction to the changes of the emotion or intensity of the song unfolding, she turbo-charges the irony and gut-punches of the lyrics. It can be bright and beautiful or it can be falling apart, but she is unshaken.

Joni did that. Lindsay does that.

And behind her can be a light, moody musical backdrop that stops on a dime and goes into a full, twangy, jangly assault, and it make perfect sense.

R.E.M. did that. Lindsay does that.

You haven’t heard a lot of music like this. Often, you’ll put on an album and think “Oh, yeah,” as you slip into familiar territory. These are largely uncharted waters, an aura of something new that blossoms right in front of you, and you witness this new creation and think “Where did that come from,” because most of us are accustomed to reading that detective novel and concluding a couple of pages in that “the butler did it.”

Every once in a while, an artist comes along who has learned enough about traditional songwriting and vocal delivery to set out in the world and be a professional singer. And as they step out the front door and into the light of day, they leave all of their road maps on the dining room table, because they won’t be needing them on their journey.

That artist is Lindsay Murray. Buy this album and prepare to be astounded.