Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
There is no question that veteran singer-songwriter Patty Griffin’s stunning 2015 release Servant Of Love was a milestone in her two decade and counting career. Nearly four years later, this self-titled follow-up confirms the previous set was no fluke.
While nothing is as radical as Servant’s title track with its Miles Davis-styled trumpet, there’s plenty here to confirm that Griffin is one of folk music’s most determined and genre-expanding artists. From the stark, stripped-down opening “Mama’s Worried,” with Griffin singing over David Pulkingham’s nimble Spanish guitar, to “What I Remember,” where she shifts into noir jazz/blues mode, and the world influence of the trancelike “Boys from Tralee,” there is ample fresh, fertile ground covered.
What hasn’t changed is her emotionally laced voice and an often somber, melancholy outlook on life and love. That’s especially evident in “Had A Good Reason,” a wrenching exploration of why the protagonist’s mother left, and the closing “Just The Same,” a reflective observation of a dysfunctional relationship. These showcase a solo Griffin accompanying herself on guitar and piano. There are echoes of Joni Mitchell’s landmark Blue with intimate stories that Griffin expresses in a solo environment. She even names a song “River” (different than Joni’s).
But little approaches the force of “The Wheel,” featuring a full band laying down a deep, swampy, Delta blues with a repeated lick as circular as the song’s title. Its six-plus minutes pulse with increased intensity, unwinding with lyrics touching on everything from police brutality to war, as the singer’s voice and the band’s edgy attack create a powerful, hypnotic swirl.
While fewer slow songs might better balance the often somber pacing, this hour-long program shows why Griffin is one of today’s finest singer-songwriters; one who never rests on her impressive laurels by consistently challenging herself and her audience and coloring outside folk music’s established boundaries.