By Eleni P. Austin
There are two kinds of singers in Pop music. Vocalists like Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston and Celine Dion who are pitch-perfect with every glissando, melisma and crescendo flawlessly executed. But it’s technique over feeling, method over passion.
Frank Sinatra, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday, Rickie Lee Jones, Judy Garland. These are singers who lived the song. These artists invested emotion and nuance into every lyric. Instilling each song with heartache or joy. Patty Griffin is that kind of singer.
Patty Griffin grew up in Maine, the youngest of seven kids. She had an epiphany of sorts when her dad bought her the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper record for her birthday. She bought a $50 acoustic guitar and was composing her own songs by age 16.
After a brief early marriage that took her to Florida and Boston, Griffin decided to pursue a career in music and began playing the Folk clubs in Boston.
A demo tape reached A & M Records and Griffin was immediately signed to the label. Adding touches of guitar and piano to her bare bones songs, the label released the demo as Griffin’s debut, Living With Ghosts, in 1996.
Her first effort easily straddled the genres of Folk, Country and Rock. Her follow-up, Flaming Red was more ambitious, including elements of Trip-Hop.
Ironically, A & M rejected Griffin’s third recording, Silver Bell. So Griffin regrouped, and departed A & M, landing at ATO, Dave Matthews’ artist-friendly boutique label. By 2002 she had re-recorded some Silver Bell tracks along with some new songs and the result was her excellent 1000 Kisses.
Griffin’s storytelling gifts were on full display with songs like “Rain,” “Making Pies” and “Chief.” Each offered intimate slice-of- life portraits rich in detail.
While Griffin was honing her songcraft, other artists were discovering and covering her songs. Everyone from the Dixie Chicks and Emmylou Harris to Solomon Burke and Bette Midler, even Jessica Simpson (!) have re-interpreted Griffin originals.
Griffin followed 1000 Kisses with a series of impeccable albums: Kiss In Time in 2003, Impossible Dream in 2004 and Children Running Through in 2007. In 2010 she teamed with Producer and multi-instrumentalist Buddy Miller and recorded an album of Traditional Gospel music, (plus 3 original songs) entitled Downtown Church. That album won a Grammy.
Griffin’s association with Miller led to her next high-profile project. Pre- Led Zeppelin, Robert Plant was in a group called Band Of Joy. He resurrected the moniker and recruited Buddy Miller, who drafted singer-songwriter Darrell Scott and Patty Griffin. In it’s 60s incarnation, Band Of Joy was primarily a Soul/Blues combo. The 21st Century version was an intriguing blend of Blues, Folk, Soul and Americana.
The album and ensuing tour were a resounding critical and commercial success. It also marked the beginning of a romantic relationship between Robert Plant and Patty Griffin.
Griffin’s latest effort, American Kid, isn’t a concept album, but a unifying theme threads throughout. It’s a tribute of sorts to Griffin’s dad. Lawrence Joseph Griffin, a World War II Veteran and High School Science Teacher, passed away in 2012.
The album opens with the heart-rending “Go Wherever You Wanna Go.” Anyone who has lost a loved one following a protracted illness is familiar with the juxtaposing feelings of grief and relief. The lyrics crystallize the comfort of letting go of the mundane.. “Working like a dog ain’t what you’re for now, you don’t even have to pay the bills no more now.” The rustic instrumentation of slide guitar and mandolin intertwine like a backwoods benediction.
Four songs here chronicle the good times and bad times of a life fully lived. Griffin offers up celebratory portraits of her dad with “Irish Boy” and “Get Ready Marie.”
The former is a slow, sad reel, Griffin is solo, accompanied by her own piano. Despite the wistful melody, the lyrics recall a buoyant young man, fresh from World War II, a little drunk, but happy to be home.
“Get Ready Marie” is a playful stop-start waltz, replete with rippling mandolin, Player piano fills and a blowsy Greek chorus. The lyrics detail an apocryphal account of a shotgun wedding with surprisingly long-lasting results: “No this isn’t the end of our story, no our marriage stuck like a habit/But I had a good hunch when she kissed me a bunch she could do other things like a rabbit!”
The other two tracks, “Please Don’t Let Me Die In Florida,” and “Faithful Son,” are dour and despairing. “Please..” is anchored by a foot-stomping beat and gritty baritone guitar chords that slither through the rough & tumble instrumentation. The mood is defiant, as a dying man tries to control his destiny.. “I don’t need to see no mirror, I ain’t never gonna see my own face/Just a reflection of somebody who’s gonna leave without a trace.”
“Faithfull Son” is a brutal assessment of life. Griffin effortlessly slips into the skin of a man at the end of his days. He is racked with regret and recrimination. A percolating rhythm provides ballast for this emotional catalogue of missed opportunities. The lyrics seek God’s grace for .. “Your quiet, dull and faithful son, who’s seen the loneliest of days and fought the dirtiest of ways/ With the man inside who would have run away from the promises I made.”
Both “Wild Dog” and “That Kind Of Lonely” offer a Master Class in songwriting. The dappled melody of “Wild Dog” is accented by guitar notes that bend loop and buckle. The tune could stand on its own as an instrumental-it’s that incandescent. But Griffin swoops in with a searing metaphor that equates a life devoid of spirituality to the desolate existence of a mangy wild animal.
With “That Kind Of Lonely,” Griffin sets the scene like a storytelling savant. “Well, this party’s turned a corner, every room is in disorder.” The listener is hooked. The heartbreak is palpable. Griffin vows she will never be “that kind of lonely,” repeating it like a mantra. She teases out the syllables, parsing the economical language of anguish, the result is nothing short of manificent,
Robert Plant collaborates on a couple of tracks, “Ohio” and “Highway Song.” The former is a stately evocation. The melody is equal parts Sufi mysticism and Americana travelogue. It acts like a radiant adieu. Griffin and Plant’s vocals recall the Holy tones of the late Sufi singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
The latter is a gorgeous lament. A celestial duet that warmly highlights their very vivid vocal chemistry.
Other stand outs include a lilting cover of Lefty Frizzell’s sentimental favorite, “Mom & Dad’s Waltz,” and “Not A Bad Man.” Told from the perspective of a former soldier suffering P.T.S.D., the song is a withering indictment of our recent wars.
The album closes with “Gonna Miss You When You’re Gone,” a spare soulful farewell guaranteed to raise goose flesh. The instrumentation is mostly provided by an Omnichord.
American Kid was co-produced by Griffin’s longtime collaborator, Craig Ross. Doug Lancio (who has been on Griffin records since 1,000 Kisses) provides lead guitar and brothers Cody and Luther Dickinson, of North Missippi All-Stars, and scions of legendary producer Jim Dickinson, (the Byrds, the Replacements) play drums and guitar. Although Griffin resides and records in Austin, Texas, this album was made in Memphis Tennessee.
It’s hardly hyperbolic to suggest that Griffin has created one of the best albums of 2013. She could sing the Yellow Pages and the results would be riveting. American Kid is epochal effort on par with the Band’s Music From Big Pink, Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde, or Billie Holiday’s Lady In Satin. In short, it’s perfect.
By Eleni P. Austin