Review: Patty Griffin – Downtown Church

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So let me go ahead and say, I am a Patty Griffin fan.  Ever since some long forgotten friend introduced me to Living With Ghosts so many years ago, I have been mesmerized by her brilliant lyrical insight, mama-smacking vocals, and stellar acoustic guitar accompaniment. I don’t listen to a lot of music, but I have listened to Patty quite often, and I’ve recommended her more than any other artist since David Wilcox in the 90’s.  So if you’re looking for an unbiased review, look elsewhere.  But if you’re looking for a somewhat informed perspective, that’s me!  So read on!

downtown-churchDowntown Church is an important and impressive addition to Ms. Griffin’s catalog.  Recorded in the mysteriously beautiful First Presbyterian Church in Downtown Nashville, and with roots music chief Buddy Miller shepherding the project, the result is like a sunrise. . .unsurprisingly spectacular. All the arrangements are beautifully straight-forward, colored by Hammond organ, earthy percussion, electric and acoustic guitars, piano, cello, accordian, violin, pedal steel, and many voices of talented friends.

Personally, It was fun to see Ms. Griffin open the record with the old Hank Williams song, “House of Gold”.  I recorded “House of Gold” over a decade ago and I’m thrilled that Ms. Griffin will bring the song to light for more listeners. The theme of humility before God and an awareness of this world’s insufficiency permeates Downtown Church, and Ms. Griffin’s lilting, sparse version serves as an effective intro.

When I was in college, I spent the summer in Athens, GA where I joined Timothy Baptist Church as an “honorary member.”  I also felt a little like the honorary white guy, since I was the only one there.   The next song on the record,  “Move Up”, along with “If I Had My Way”, “Wade in the Water”, and “The Strange Man”, feels like the potent and soulful songs I sang that summer with the congregation at Timothy Baptist. Belting over  the tambourine and those thick gospel harmonies, Ms. Griffin seems right at home.  She brings stunning passion and ownership to the chorus of “If I Had My Way”, singing “If I had my way, I would tear this building down” and I imagine her with her headphones on, singing into the mic inside Downtown Pres, every word drenched in meaning.  I had never heard this traditional song (popularized by long time Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Wier) but it is brilliant, and brilliantly interpreted, and was initially my favorite track on the record.

Having kept up with some of her interviews over the years, I know that Ms. Griffin keeps her journey of faith mostly to herself, though I gather that she is as much a skeptic as a believer.  This tension in her personal story brings more gravity to the whole project, especially on songs like “The Strange Man”–where Ms. Griffin’s powerful voice soars as Jesus meets the woman at the well and then the woman caught in adultery.  In the rousing bridge, supported by Regina McCrary and Mike Farris,  Ms. Griffin sings “I met that same man.”

When the record doesn’t lean toward the stomp and clap of gospel, it leans toward the picking of old country, and that flavor comes out no purer than on “Never Grow Old,” a traditional hymn that longs for heaven as Ms. Griffin blends with Buddy Miller’s weathered tenor. My mother-in-law was just in town for a visit and she recalled playing that song on the piano as a girl growing up in rural Alabama.  It was worth the price of admission just to hear Patty Griffin sing…

When our work here is done and the life crown is won
And our troubles and trials are o’er
All our sorrows will end, all our voices will blend
With the loved ones who’ve gone on before

Mmm..  gives me chills just sitting here at the computer.

Much to my joy, Ms. Griffin penned two original songs for Downtown Church.  Of those, “Little Fire” is a wonderfully simple song about faith where she writes that she would “give back these things I know are meaningless for a little fire beside me when I sleep.”  There are many timeless Patty Griffin songs in her repertoire, and “Little Fire” reaches that bar. However, my only complaint about this record rose up particularly on this song, and that is, I couldn’t understand some of the lyrics on a couple of songs even after cranking the volume and listening over and over.

The album closes artfully with one of our oldest hymns, written by St. Francis of Assisi in the 13th Century.  In the hands of Patty Griffin, “All Creatures of Our God and King” rings out wistfully as well as worshipfully over simple piano accompaniment.  Ms. Griffin may not have all her theology figured out, but neither do I, which makes this record that much more affecting for me. To be able to sing Alleluia in the face of confusion and uncertainty is the ultimate hope of earthly faith.  Ms. Griffin does that on Downtown Church, and the record is killer to listen to.  What more do you want?


12 Comments

  1. Paula Shaw

    Patty Griffin rocks. My favorite song she does is “Up to the Mountain”. The way she sings that song makes me speechless. . .

  2. Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

    Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    I, too, am a Patty Griffin fan, and not just because her first name makes me think of hamburgers and her last name makes me think of a winged lion.

    Her album 1,000 Kisses is near the top of my all-time favorites list, not just because it’s such a beautiful, emotive record, but because it was exactly what my spirit needed the first time I heard it. I remember laying in the back of the van in 2002 while Eric Peters drove us across America to some show, staring up at a gray sky and the tops of the trees as they blew past us. Her music was medicine.

    Ever since, I’ve bought her albums as soon as they release–and ever since, I’ve been a little disappointed. It seems the warmth, restraint, and tenderness of 1,000 Kisses is gone, and Ms. Griffin can’t help showing off. So many of the vocals are acrobatic, and that’s the quickest way to lose me. If I wanted acrobatics I’d listen to Mariah Carey. (And I don’t.)

    That said, I’m a fan for life. I bought the new album the day it released, and as with her other records since 1,000 Kisses, I was thrilled enough by a few of the tracks to still admire her as an artist.

    Great review, RG.

  3. whipple

    As a not-so-aside aside, I love your version of the Hank tune.

    As to Patty Griffin’s cutthroat lyrical acuity, I am much in agreement.

    Her father would tear out like
    a page of the Bible,
    Then he’d burn down the house
    to announce his arrival.

    I grin every time at the poetic dance move there, despite the drabness of the subject. Plus, she spends that entire record reminding all of us (even though it wasn’t the original intent) that one voice and one guitar can carry as much emotion – and sometimes more – than a full band. I kept seeing adverts for “Downtown Church” around the internet and wondering what it was about. Thanks for cluing me in. Even as a devoted cheapskate, I’m going to have to get this one. If you need me, I shall be scrounging under the couch cushions.

  4. Dieta

    I have not traditionally been a PG fan. I love her songs, but usually get more out of hearing someone else deliver them. That being said, I have listened to Downtown Church about a thousand times since I bought it. I honestly ordered it to hear what my husband’s violin had lent to the project, and while I adore his playing it is the CD as a whole that is killing me. It is uplifting, and emotional almost to a painful place. She is singing from a different place on this recording than I have ever heard her before. And Buddy’s production is just what she and these songs need. I am not usually overly moved by bass playing, but some of the things that Dennis lends to this are elevated. I wish I were as eloquent with words as the proprietor and RG are, but suffice it to say I would recommend this CD to anyone who will stand still long enough to listen. D

  5. Randall Goodgame

    Yes! Dieta, thank you for weighing in, and for mentioning the inspired bass playing. Oh, and Stuart’s fiddle adds the perfect note to “Reunited.” I’m so glad he joined in the magic of this record.

  6. Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

    Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    An addendum to my previous comment:

    We listened to this album to and from church this morning, and partly because of this conversation, I experienced it in a new way. Beautiful music.

    Thanks, folks.

  7. Aaron Roughton

    I have a friend who is a die hard Patty Griffin fan who has tried unsuccessfully to convert me in the past. However, I just saw some thing on PBS last week where Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin, and Buddy Miller (I think) were playing songs in the round and joining in with each other. I was mesmerized. I think it was a live performance that my friend saw that put Patty on his radar also. This album may have to go in my need-to-buy folder. Thanks for the review Randall.

  8. JacobT

    I think I read a quote from Steve Earle about PG’s music that said something like listening to her songs is like stumbling into a very personal conversation and feeling like ‘I shouldn’t be hearing this”.

    In a good way of course. Her song “Forgiveness” is one of the most intense I think I’ve ever heard.

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