Only an artist as strong as Patty Griffin would overlook these ten great performances in search of ‘better’ material. Hindsight often has its advantages and time between can bring a new perspective as did here. Yet Griffin is unlike many other artists. She doesn’t offer up explanations for the inspiration for her songs. She rarely talks about themes or threads that run through her work. Yet, like many artists, she put the pandemic time off to good use, researching older material and in the process, making some new discoveries.
Some of the songs she found were initially recorded alone in her home, singing into a recorder in the wee hours of the morning. A few were from an in-studio demo session in Nashville, including a duet with Robert Plant around the time they first met. She is all about the performances. You’ll have to accept the relatively weak sound quality. These songs on TAPE are rarities with several gems that one could only imagine fleshed out with instrumentation. On the other hand, this is an insight one rarely gets, hearing an artist alone crafting her songs. A limited number of TAPE copies will really be available on cassette beginning Friday, June 17 with CDs, digital and streaming services available on June 10.
We all should recall that Griffin can be quite powerful in these stripped-down sessions. After all, she started this way on her visceral 1996 Living with Ghosts, her voice shaking with emotive vulnerability one minute and overpowering anyone or thing in sight the next. These songs are mostly about lonely people too and those peaks and valleys in her vocals by now are a trademark. These songs though are a bit lighter, more melodious, and a few are more cheerful than those on her debut.
Griffin begins with the cautiously hopeful single “Lucky” to the sound of hard strummed bluesy chords and series of verses, among which this one – “Some days you hear the music and the song/Some days you get abused like maybe you were wrong/About everything, about everything…maybe we’ll be lucky along the way.” “One Day We Could” is more pensive, set in Atlantic City where she pines on the slim hopes that her down-and-out lover could strike it rich. The limber, defiant “Strip of Light” checks in under two minutes as she expresses exasperation with a relationship about to break. On all three of these, there’s no mistaking her signature voice with her emotive phrasing and the wailing on some choruses.
The shuffle “Don’t Mind” is a bright love song (“your arms are making an easy chair”) with Robert Plant with a fuller accompaniment including drums, organ, bass, and guitar from Marco Giovino, John Deaderick, Frank Swart, and Doug Lancio respectively. This band along with Russ Pahl on pedal steel also plays on “Little Yellow House” as she paints an image of the lonely house “with a cross on the door” out in the country, where the resident just up and disappeared without taking any belongings. She taps into that universal sentiment of just getting the courage to escape and leave it all behind but realizes that she never could culminating with the a cappella last verse – “The I remember all those promises I made/All the ones depending on me/And here is where I stay.”
She accompanies herself on the gorgeous piano ballad, “Sundown,” recalling the sound of her great Silver Bell album, her voice rising and falling so powerfully and gracefully in synch with the piano as again she sings of breakup. She is on the piano for “Night,” the most lyrically rich tune in terms of metaphors as plays the role of companion, watchdog, or deceptive alias. This verse stands out – “Night is watching from the tower/Turns on the electric fense/The night can make you disappear/Without a trace of evidence.” “Kiss of Man” is an intriguing story song, from the point of view of a little girl who lived with her protective parents in a room behind their rowdy bar. The fully instrumental droning, chime-like “Octaves” is a curious choice as she plays piano to Craig Ross’ drone it fits well in this melancholy sequence as does the closer, the tender lullaby “Forever Shall Be.” The ‘oohs’ in her vocal are so relaxing and soothing as she leaves us in a sublimely peaceful state.
All the beauty and intensity you expect from Patty Griffin are packaged nicely in these ten selections.