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Music Review: Patty Griffin — Downtown Church

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Golden-throated Patty Griffin possesses an inimitable voice in the world of contemporary folk and alt-country music, and that voice could make even the most specious of projects a worthwhile venture.

That’s certainly a harsher assessment than Griffin’s latest album, Downtown Church, deserves but this gospel project feels more like a detour than the next stepping stone in her exemplary discography. Previous releases Children Running Through (2007) and Impossible Dream (2004) are essential Griffin; Downtown Church is more of a brief aside that doesn’t quite showcase everything she has to offer.

The album features a pair of songs written by Griffin alongside five covers and seven traditional songs. She certainly has an ear for picking diverse compositions, with “Wade in the Water” and “All Creatures of Our God and King” being the only conventional choices. The album traverses an unexpected path, making stops at the ominous “Death’s Got a Warrant,” the elegiac “Virgen de Guadalupe” and the decidedly non-gospel foot-stomper “I Smell a Rat,” written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.

Stylistically Downtown Church covers the gamut but the album’s lilting and even lovely pace somehow cause most songs to lose their distinctiveness, especially over the course of multiple listens. Griffin turns in rousing renditions of the traditional “Move Up” and “If I Had My Way,” but these kinds of barnburners have never been Griffin’s strongest offerings. She belts it on the similarly forceful “No Bad News” and “I’m Getting Ready” on Children Running Through, but it’s her stirring “Trapeze” from that album and “Top of the World” from Impossible Dream that exemplify the passionate soul at the heart of the best Griffin songs.

Downtown Church doesn’t ever reach that plateau, and while her original songs “Little Fire” and especially “Coming Home to Me” are vintage Griffin, the album feels a little stuck exploring gospel music esoterica. It could have been a much more generic project, but more than anything, it makes one long for a new album full of entirely original Griffin compositions. That’ll be something to really rejoice over.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.