Friday, February 5, 2010

Review: Patty Griffin - Downtown Church (* * * *)

I can't say I've thought about his enough to actually do it, but if I were to make a list of the singers I would most like to release a gospel album, I'm certain Patty Griffin would be very near the top. That's not to say that I have an extensive collection of the genre, but I do enjoy a great gospel record on occasion, and Downtown Church hits that spot just right. That's because Griffith went about making this album all the right ways, paying homage to soulful, classic gospel records while retaining her familiar musical personality, so while she explores some new (for her) territory here, she avoids removing herself from what made her such a special talent to begin with. Recorded, like the title suggests, in a Presbyterian church in downtown Nashville, the singer/songwriter's latest and sixth effort is a fantastic collection of covers, traditional numbers, and a couple originals - all of which are beautifully presented with the help of guests like Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin, and Buddy Miller.

It should be said here that Downtown Church, while obviously dealing with mostly Christian themes throughout its 14 songs, isn't meant just for the faithful few. While believers such as myself may fall more deeply for the record than others, it's apparent that Patty Griffin did not intend this to serve as a praise and worship album, and if you've got any interest in the origin of blues, soul, and country music, you should find plenty to pique your interest. Because what comes across loud and clear on Downtown Church is Griffin and company's genuine love of and reverence for the album's musical and thematic elements, of which there are many (some quite old), ranging from the fire 'n' brimstone stomp of "Death's Got a Warrant" to somewhat more modern-sounding country ballads like "Never Grow Old." Each performance feels carefully conceived but freely executed, and the production allows plenty of the open chapel space into the music, resulting in an appropriately raw, unpolished feel. Highlights abound, including Griffin's own "Little Fire," a gorgeous duet with Emmylou Harris that is heartfelt and deeply emotionally, and the unexpectedly brash "I Smell a Rat," which allows Griffin to showcase the grittier, soulful side of her amazing voice as she whips around lines like "you won't tell me where you been, whiskey running all down your chin" with a venomous edge.

She only penned two of these tracks (the other being the yearning "Coming Home to Me"), but Patty Griffin makes Downtown Church her own by mostly resisting making a "gospel by the numbers" kind of record, instead crafting one that views faith through multiple lenses and isn't afraid to have some fun. The company she keeps to present these songs should also receive generous credit for their role in making a varied and consistently wonderful selection of tunes that most anyone can relate to or at least appreciate on some level - a true achievement, I believe, given the subject matter. As she closes with the sparse, stirring hymn "All Creatures of Our God and King" (a favorite of mine, I'll admit), Griffin leaves us with a tangible impression of the power of spirituality, faith, and devotion - and it would be a hard heart indeed that isn't warmed by such a sincere and thoughtful message.