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Monday, 27 May 2013 07:00

Album review: Patty Griffin leads listeners on a rewarding journey with 'American Kid'

Album review: Patty Griffin leads listeners on a rewarding journey with 'American Kid'
Written by Kris Embry
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Patty Griffin
"American Kid"
New West

Like Tom Waits or Kris Kristofferson, Patty Griffin is the type of songwriter whose songs have at times found greater success in the hands of others, but her latest album, "American Kid," proves once again that she is an outstanding vocalist and performer in her own right.

Griffin's seventh studio album is her first recording of primarily new material since the 2007 release of "Children Running Through." Griffin hasn't been idle in the interim, of course; she released "Downtown Church," a collection of mostly traditional gospel songs, in 2010, and she has also kept busy as part of Robert Plant's Band of Joy. In fact, Plant (who is her significant other) co-wrote one song with Griffin for "American Kid," and also contributes vocals to three tracks including the haunting first single, "Ohio."

Griffin's albums often seem to have a current of sadness running through them, and "American Kid" is no exception. Tying this record together thematically, however, is Griffin's father, or, more specifically, the impending death of her father. That sense of apprehension and of impending loss informed much of the writing for this record. And, while every song is not specifically about him, Griffin has said that much of the record was written to honor him and his memory.

Griffin's father, a high school science teacher who fought in World War II, led the type of workaday life that she has written about before. Everyday life and the day-to-day struggles of regular folks are frequently her lyrical focus. From the old woman "Making Pies" on her album "1000 Kisses" to chronicling her own father's wartime experiences on this record, themes of daily life, hardship and mortality run throughout Griffin's records.

While Griffin has described herself as a "lapsed Catholic," God and faith, or perhaps the loss thereof, is also a frequent focus of her work. It's obvious that gospel music has been a strong influence, but the good Lord seems a bit farther away on "American Kid." On "Wild Old Dog" God is a lost animal as she sings, "God is a wild old dog/Someone left out on the highway/I seen him running by me/He don't belong to no one now." Heartbreakingly sad, Griffin's voice beautifully conveys a sense of loss and alienation. But how can anyone hope to find redemption? When God belongs to no one?

At the forefront of "American Kid" are not only Griffin's lyrics -- poetic, personal and honest -- but her voice, as strong and expressive as ever, yet somehow strikingly fragile. She is capable of both force and restraint, and her vocal style is distinct and instantly recognizable. She bends her voice easily to the emotion of her lyrics, whether conveying joy and love or heartache and a separation from God. And if there is any redemption to be found, it is ultimately not in faith, but in love and family. This is evident, not only in her own lyrics, but also in her choice to cover a Lefty Frizzell classic, the upbeat "Mom and Dad's Waltz."

Sparse and acoustic, the instrumentation here is country, but without an overtly country feel, even despite dobro and a driving mandolin on the opening track. Griffin draws from many influences, but overall "American Kid" is roots and Americana at its core. "Irish Boy," an ode to her father, is one of the most stripped-down, and stunning, tracks on the record, featuring only Griffin's voice and her piano. 
"American Kid" was produced by Griffin and Craig Ross, who also produced 2004's "Impossible Dream." Ross is a guitarist well known for his own solo work and his work with violinist and songwriter Lisa Germano. Primarily a guitar player, Ross is a multi-instrumentalist as well, and contributes not only guitar, but bass, mandolin and organ; he plays on all but two of the tracks on the album. Also appearing is Griffin's other longtime collaborator, guitarist Doug Lancio. Lancio has worked with Griffin since very early in her career, and helped produced some of her previous records.

Not surprisingly, Griffin has produced a strong record in "American Kid," marked not only by excellent musicianship, but by lyrical and emotional depth. "It's lonely on the highway," she sings, and "sometimes a heart can turn to dust." Yet when you're traveling with Griffin, somehow the journey doesn't seem quite so hard.

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