Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Past as Prologue: Patty Griffin's Silver Bell and American Kid

Patty Griffin on NPR

Last year Patty Griffin released two albums that could be considered long, lost companions reunited. Even though the releases span 13 years, they offer insight into Griffin’s maturity as a singer and songwriter.

In the brief liner notes to Silver Bell, Griffin writes about this previously unreleased record as "the last of many things". But to my ear it’s as much a “beginning” as an "ending" because Silver Bell is a fine album of transition, from Griffin’s edgy rock sound to her current recording, American Kid [New West] that is refined and inspired from her past. To me, Silver Bell is the gateway to American Kid.

Silver Bell was recorded in 2000 in Daniel Lanois's Kingsway Studio in New Orleans. Although Lanois was not a participant on the record, the feel of the geography permeates the music on the album with its mix of swampy folk music and harder edged rock. But through it all is the beautifully soaring voice of Griffin whose gorgeous, empathetic tone centers the album as testament to her times, thirteen years ago. The album was completed on time for her then label A&M, but due to corporate transfers in the music business, it was shelved for 13 years. (A&M was sold to Universal Music in 1998, but due to a legal battle by its founders, Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss, the deal wasn't closed until 2000.) Consequently, Griffin was left without a major label to support her music though ATO Records stepped into the breach for her next three albums.

Silver Bell, which is put out by A&M, is a remarkable album that puts Griffin’s 2013 release American Kid (New West Records) into proper perspective because it reveals her intimate songwriting style. Musically, Silver Bell is a record under the spell of Lucinda Williams and Patti Smith, with just the inkling of her own voice. American Kid is pure Griffin: full of grace, empathy and respectful of history. The stories on this album have a Southern feel as she sings about the people and places that make up rural America. (Griffin herself hails from rural Maine.)

Griffin is the youngest of seven children in her family. She’s admitted to trying extra hard, as a child, to gain her parents’ attention. Music was the means of expressing herself, even though she was shy, especially during her teenage years. By 1985, at the age of 21, Griffin moved to Boston; worked a day job and wrote songs at night. I suspect New York was too intimidating.

In 1996 Griffin released her debut album, Living With Ghosts (A&M) featuring the singer’s demos for the label. It reflects a private person, at home, alone, strumming her guitar and singing to the four walls of her Boston apartment. Two years later, Griffin released an electric record called Flaming Red (A&M) that was completely different in tone and style. By 2000, Silver Bell, the album everyone expected, was never properly released, save for a promotional EP that featured 5 tracks. So it’s interesting to hear Griffin’s development as a songwriter blending her early, intimate performances with a full band and studio polish. 

Silver Bell has a wider range of song subjects, material that put Griffin on the songwriting map, as it were. The Dixie Chicks covered two songs, “Truth #2” and “Top of the World” that fit perfectly with their bigger and brighter sound. Griffin’s versions are much more intimate. Her voice soars carefully on both tracks as she seeks to establish it. By the time we hear American Kid, Griffin has become a stronger, more grounded performer excelling in confidence and poise.

The songs/stories on American Kid talk about freedom “Go Wherever You Wanna Go”, romance “Ohio” and the relationship between fathers and daughters, “Gonna Miss You When You’re Gone”. It is as much a lament for the American past as it is a reflection of Griffin’s past, specifically her relationship with her father to whom the album is dedicated.

Both albums make for some satisfying music. Griffin’s qualities as a songwriter are the result of crafting words and music to suit her own ear. American Kid has a quiet intensity about it that draws you in. Two tracks feature Robert Plant, “Highway Song” and “Ohio” offering fans a taste of The Band of Joy soundscapes that are sublime.

Released last October, Silver Bell was rarely out of my CD player at home, or in the car. I couldn’t get enough of it, particularly the song “Mother of God”; one of Griffin’s very best songs. It’s a compelling album with 14 distinctive tracks beautifully re-mixed by veteran producer, Glyn Johns. It was worth the wait.

– John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Wind Orchestra.

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