Patty Griffin reaches a new astral plane in her artistry on eponymous 10th LP
Artist: Patty Griffin
Album: Patty Griffin
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
It’s always been a woman’s prerogative to change her mind. That extends to artists of that particular gender as well. One need only look at Joni Mitchell or Madonna as examples of two ladies whose careers were marked by perpetual shifts in musical make-up and orientation. It’s a trait to be commended of course. The most notable musicians of every status and standing are those that evolve, change and plot new directions.
One can include Patty Griffin in that rarified category, and for good reason. Although the casual observer might be tempted to label her as “Americana” and little else, the truth is that she’s shifted her stance frequently throughout her career. Its reason enough for The Americana Music Association to name her Artist of the Year in 2007 and bestow Best Album honors as well on the effort that she released that same year, Children Running Through. Her various associations not withstanding — on again, off again touring alongside Buddy Miller, Emmylou Harris and Shawn Colvin, her Grammy winning gospel album Downtown Church, and a brief personal and professional partnership with Robert Plant that helped him adapt to a striking, surprising and newly transitioned rootsy regimen — she’s always been her own woman, eschewing mainstream melodies in favor of her own decidedly distinct persona.
As a result, Griffin finds herself needing to meet a high bar, one that she established for herself early on. As a songwriter, she’s already proved her strengths not only for her own employ, but also for a client rosters that includes Emmylou Harris, Ellis Paul, Rory Block and the Dixie Chicks, among several others.
It’s little wonder then that Griffin’s self-titled new album measures up to the task. It unfolds as a steady sweep, accompanied mostly — but not wholly — by barebones arrangements similar in sound to Astral Weeks or some other nocturnal dreamscape of decades past. The gypsy-like mysticism of “Mama’s Worried” flows nicely into the elegiac piano-accompanied “River” (no, not the Joni Mitchell song, but it does make for an apt comparison), and steadily on from there into the dream-like designs of the aptly named “Luminous Places,” the stately “Just the Same” and “What I Remember,” the latter a song that sounds as if it was lifted from the Charles Aznavour songbook. There’s no real break from that stoic stance other than the jaunty, Dixieland band sound of “Hourglass,” the most distinctive song occupying the album overall.
Midway through this baker’s dozen, Griffin reconnects with her mystic muse, recommitting to a folk noir that further confirms her regal and romantic notions. The soaring strains of “Bluebeard,” “Boys From Tralee,” “What Now” and “The Wheel” echo a sound that Plant, her former paramour, would likely have related to through his acoustic ramblings with Led Zep once they hammered out their Teutonic tones. It’s lovely stuff indeed, with drones, marimbas, and cello occasionally adding to the atmospherics. Oh, did we mention that Planty himself lends his pipes to “Bluebird” and a later offering, “Coins,” as well? It’s good to know those communal bonds remain unbroken beyond any domestic difficulty.
Griffin has never shied away from taking chances, albeit at a low key level. The otherworldly ambiance imbued here makes Patty Griffin one of her most distinct — and appropriately — also one of her most personal offerings yet. Given the personal perspective, it’s an ideal namesake indeed.