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Peter Hochstedler | The Saltpeter Wars

album review by John Powell

Peter Hochstedler | The Saltpeter Wars

Let’s talk Peter Hochstedler for a moment. Peter The Troubadour. Peter The Traveler. Peter The Philosopher. The underground songwriter has several albums under his belt, but none of them on labels and few of them even distributed on CD. But Peter is undoubtedly one of the best songwriters of his time, and below the radar keeps him even more in tune with his songs.

The Saltpeter Wars is released in conjunction with The Desert EP. The two have different themes to them. Peter has always explored sound and themes throughout his albums, at times returning to old themes and at times striking new ground. This is new ground, for sure.

The Saltpeter Wars is dense. Lyrically, Peter has a lot to say, and it’s all thick metaphor, robust symbolism, or insightful realism. Nothing on this album is airy. Peter has always taken on religion and politics, while here he expands beyond the very micro of many of his albums, to the macro, worldviews. It's not how politics and religion affect him. It's how he affects politics and religion.

“Do Not Walk My Road” is an excellent opener. One of the softer songs on the album, it’s a sad, bittersweet lament. “Do not sing my song,” he sings, “My song just some tongue twisting/ twined, tangled/ story spinning/ unspooled.” It’s slow, beautiful, and amped up by Peter overlaying his voice into majestic harmonies. “Do not treat my wounds,” be warns, “My haphazard incision/ will bear us many children/ I would prefer it left open.” It’s wonderful songwriting.

“Smoke Rose From the Old House” adds drums, bass, and creates an almost Wilco-esque instrumentation. Peter brings up the mood a bit. He paints the picture of a quiet home in the wilderness. “It was money/ it made me angry,” he begins the second verse. “Come on, you weary/ I will give you products…to make your sick skin shine.”

On “Saltpeter” he brings in newer instrumental elements, light synth drums and overlaid vocals. In his dark manner he begins a stream of incredible lyrics both confusing and wrenching. “Peter come to your place where the people are/ Tiny-ass Peter with his mouth there, mutterin’,” he sings almost disgustedly. If a folk singer ever integrated rap, it’s here with Peter, who sings in a half-tone, just harpin’ on Peter. It’s not self-loathing, though, and yet not self-relfection... It is, however, one of the album's best songs.

The album deliciously mixes the ugly with the beautiful, more and more experimental with song-making. The half-funk beat on “Wildgoose” is quite indie of Peter, who usually holds himself back, but when the female guest vocals enter, it’s a new take for this Americana thinker.

A classic Peter tune, “Fools On the Highway” returns here, more Neil Young that it ever has been. The guitar swings. The drums boom out. The song is so strong to begin with that every version seems like the right one. This time, it’s done darker than ever before. The song can be interpreted more as a hopeful, setting sail on an adventure, or, like in this instance, a tormented man itching for redemption. “Fires in the valley/ fires all inside me,” Peter sings, “That old spinster, Maryanne, was hippie child/ she up and took her tambourine to that putrid sound/ My God, what you spinin’ me?”

Peter creates a world wrought with religious implications, meditations on an all-encompassing God that no one can trust, and a world where people are knocked around and dragged out. It’s not the happiest thing, but, and, yes, I dare compare them: Dylan had the same knack.

Peter shouldn’t go unnoticed with The Saltpeter Wars. It’s some of his most complex stuff, and totally DIY gives him more street cred than he’ll ever use.

Bottom line: Folk’s most underground songwriter writes about a dim but hopeful world on this epic journey of an album.


 

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