Patty Griffin‘s “lost” album, recorded in 2000 for A&M Records but never released amid label takeovers and re-shuffles, has finally seen the light of day, and it’s a fiery light. Griffin is in full-on “flaming red” mode on many of these 14 songs, with barrages of guitars and drums and fuzz.
It’s a hard-rocking mode very different from the quieter songs and ballads for which she has become best known, some of which turn up in between the rockers here. They include the original recording of “Top of the World,” which became a monster hit for the Dixie Chicks in 2002 leading many music fans to discover Griffin for the first time. “Truth #2,” which the Dixie Chicks also recorded, appears here with Griffin and guest Emmylou Harris in exquisite, slightly off-timed vocal harmonies.
The CD opens with one of its best tracks, the dirge-like minor-key “Little God.” Add some power chords to this hallucinatory number and it could easily be a Metallica song. The folksy “Truth #2” could hardly be more different, as the narrator plaintively asks, “Why must we be so afraid / And always so far apart?” But then comes “Boston” in which, after a fake-out country beginning, churning power chords plunge us into Velvet Underground territory. That’s followed by “Perfect White Girls” with a grim melody over an almost-comically fuzzed-out guitar, and then the gentle pop of “Sooner or Later,” with a faint pop-funk reminiscent of Kim Richey.
Crunching aggression and soft beauty alternate from song to song – the punked-out title track, the spare acoustic waltz “So Long,” the quietly insistent “Fragile,” the gritty mid-tempo rock of “Driving” that reminds me of Patti Smith – but always, there is that voice. Griffin could sing the user manual to my Epson printer and I’d listen. Her voice is an instrument choked with the essence of emotion – not a single emotion, like grief or regret, though there’s plenty of those, but something like the Platonic ideal of Emotion itself. Shining or shouting, slinking or keening, it’s a voice as unmistakeable as Dolly Parton’s or Bob Dylan’s.
This seems a good time to mention that the narrator of “One More Girl” is conscious of the way an audience objectifies a performer. “You turn me into some novelty / Guess I’m one more girl on the stage / Just one more ass that got stuffed in some jeans…Did you ever take the time / To think about who I might be? / Where I’ve been, what I’m thinking, who I love, what I feel?” It’s a complaint many people who find themselves unappreciated in a relationship could relate to, but this narrator is a performer. And on stage, fortunately for us, the real Patty Griffin comes across as anything but resentful or unappreciated. I don’t know if you’re likely to hear many songs from this album at her concerts, though “Top of the World” will probably never get old. But it took me only two listens to fall for this record.