The first thing that struck me about Patty Griffin’s new album is the arrangements. They are deftly placed to accentuate her golden voice and support the strong and evocative songs. The key players here are Luther and Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars – Luther on guitar and Cody on percussion, crack session guitarist Doug Lancio (who we saw with John Hiatt on his Australian tour last year) and Craig Ross on various stringed instruments. The restrained but striking performances just ooze class.
It’s been six years since singer and songwriter Griffin last released an album of mostly original material. American Kid, recorded in Memphis, is a treasure.
Most of the twelve songs on the album are about her father, a World War II veteran who returned home to live for a time in a Trappist monastery before becoming a high school science teacher and raising seven children.
“The bulk of the record was written at a time where I knew my father was passing away,” Griffin says in a video explaining the album.
Patty got to know the brothers Dickinson when their group opened some shows while Griffin was touring as part of Band of Joy with Robert Plant, who contributed vocals to three songs: “Ohio,” “Faithful Son” and “Highway Song. “Robert and I started working on things together, and coming up with things on stage,” Griffin says.
Griffin’s always been an extremely gifted songwriter and the offerings on American Kid cement, even grow her standing to my mind. The album starts off with the gentle “Go Wherever You Wanna Go”, in which Griffin refers to a time and place where “the time’s wound all the way down”. After that, though, there are more specific tales to tell – “Please Don’t Let Me Die in Florida” propels the listener to a birth where “dirty streets cried out for rain”, on to war, a job laying down blacktop where “those hills gave way just like a wedding gown”, and ending up in old age.
The beautiful “Ohio” (co-written with Plant, and featuring his understated, but key harmonies) imagines a meeting which death might prevent. In “Wild Old Dog” there’s loneliness on the highway and “sometimes a heart can turn to dust”. In the only cover on the album, Griffin does an exceptional version of Lefty Frizzell’s “Mom and Dad’s Waltz” which in a sense reflects the emotional core of the album – a longing for something gone and a heart-felt farewell to a dear one. When the song almost abruptly finishes, you can hear the sharp intake of breath, or is it indeed a sob?
“Faithful Son” is a plea to God not to forget “Your quiet, dull and faithful son / Who’s seen the loneliest of days / And fought the dirtiest of ways / With the man inside who would have run away / From the promises I made.” “Highway Song”, another co-write with Plant, concludes with a plea to “wait until your return”, while “Irish Boy” with its celtic-vibe provides some tension relief and release. A groom itching for his wedding night is the subject on “Get Ready Marie” and there’s remorse a-plenty and a search for forgiveness on “Not a Bad Man”. The closing track provides a final, poignant farewell and perfectly frames what has preceded.
This is a beautiful collection and everything an ardent fan of Griffin’s like me could wish for.
It’s almost halfway through the year, so I feel that it’s alright to think of top albums of 2013 – American Kid is clearly one of them for me.