CD Review
Patty Griffin
Downtown Church
(thru EMI)

pattygriffin This is an album of gospelish songs performed by Patty Griffin and a stellar band that has one of my guitar heroes, Buddy Miller, at its head. It was recorded in a church in Nashville and it is pretty hard to find fault with. But I’ll do my best.

Let’s start with the obvious highlights. First, Patty Griffin’s voice. I gotta say, she is an artist I have pretty much ignored over the years, but having a thorough listen to this album makes me realise what I’ve been missing. She is an extraordinarily good vocalist. There is power and control there, for sure, but she has such a lovely lilt in her singing, such a wonderful texture to her voice, that I’m really pressed to think of too many who are better. Of course, the songs on this album play to her vocal strengths too, so the album is almost like a singing masterclass and almost worth buying for that reason alone. But I suspect you could hand her the phone book and she could sing it back at you and people would buy tickets to hear it.

Then there are the songs. By and large, this is a fine collection and it includes a bunch of standards from the black and white gospel repotoire, as well as some originals, and not one of them is weak, though there are a couple I don’t like much, for various reasons. I’ll come back to that. Highlights for me include ‘House of Gold’, ‘Death’s Got A Warrant’, ‘Never Grow Old’, ‘Waiting for my Child’. But I also like her countrified version of ‘Wade in the Water’ and her uptempo take on ‘If I Had My Way’. Fans of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles will recognise that latter track, a version of which (by Shirley Manson) opens season two of the show, but I’d have to say Griffin’s version is superior.  Maybe you’d expect that.

Finally, there are the musicians.  What can you say about such effortless, tasteful, perfectly pitched playing?  Buddy Miller presides and all is well with the world.  Throw in guest vocals by the likes of Regina and Ann McCrary and Emmylou Harris, not to mention Julie Miller, and you’ve got the icing on the cake.

The only fault I will find is pretty minor and really just down to personal taste.  I didn’t like ‘Move Up’, the second track on the album. It’s just a bit too cutesy for my taste, a bit too old Nashville.  ‘Virgen de Guadalupe’ I’m also going to diss as a Linda Rondstadt out-take. Probably unfair,  but I still don’t like it much.  And I also could’ve lived without ‘All Creatures of Our God and King’.  I can see the attraction of it: it really is a beautiful hymn, but having grown up on it and forever associating it with boring services and hearing it sung reluctantly by awful singers, I guess I just can’t overcome the personal associations.

Anyway, big deal about the criticisms.  This is a fine album.  It isn’t straight up gospel in either a black or white tradition, but it comes from a similar place, a place where music is uplifting and funny and bracing and where you can lose yourself for a while and forget about the troubles of the world.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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