Griffin and her cohorts deliver a collection of astonishing songs.
Nick Barraclough 2010-03-03
If an artist is to be judged by her friends, Patty Griffin is a superstar. Her songs have been recorded by Emmylou Harris, Mary Chapin Carpenter and the Dixie Chicks; Buddy and Julie Miller are guests on this album, as is the gorgeous voice of former Maverick Raul Malo.
It doesn’t take much listening, though, to realise what qualifies her to call on such luminaries. Her reedy but soulful voice wraps itself round some classic gospel songs, but the surprise is that only one of these is written by herself, although she has a strong track record as a songwriter.
Her choice of material sounds like it bears the strong influence of producer Buddy Miller. He has always championed the gravelly side of what we might call Americana or alt-country; but this, simply, is honest country music. Buddy seems to have recognised in Patty’s voice and delivery an earthiness that hasn’t been fully exploited in the past.
Downtown Church is full of astonishing songs. It opens with Hank Williams’ House of Gold, and there’s a bit of Lieber and Stoller silliness with I Smell a Rat. As for Sullivan Pugh’s unsettling Waiting for My Child from 1963, where did they find that? Then, from the obscure to the obvious – Wade in the Water. There is some severe God-bothering going on, but don’t let that put you off, as the music’s what it is, regardless of whom it’s about.
The album was recorded in a Nashville church, and Griffin had plenty to choose from – there are over a thousand in the Tennessee capital, making it arguably the most churched settlement in the States. This particular building they got right, as the acoustics inside the Nashville Downtown Presbyterian Church sound wonderful. You can spend as much money as you want on digital manipulation, on echoes and reverbs pulled from the electronic shelf, but nothing sound as good as twanging strings moving the air and banging back and forth between hard walls.
The straight rendering of the hymn All Creatures of Our God and King may wear some down at the album’s end, but otherwise this is one destined for the iPod.