Patty Griffin: Downtown Church

Patty Griffin has always had the voice of an angel. Whether accompanied by the simple strums of an acoustic guitar as on her debut album Living with Ghosts or soaring over the complex arrangements of her more richly produced later catalogue, her voice has always been the defining element of her sound. And it’s always been heavenly. It’s only fitting now that Patty is lending her voice to a collection of gospel and gospel inspired tunes on her new CD, Downtown Church.

For this album, Patty teamed with ultra talented Buddy Miller as her producer. Buddy leads Patty through a set of 14 tracks including two originals, several hymns and gospel standards, and tunes written by Hank Williams and Leiber & Stoller among others. The production is an important element here. Most of the time when I think of a straight gospel record, I think of something austere and… well… bland. That’s not the case here. Patty and Buddy never let you get the sense that you’ve heard this all before.

Much like Buddy’s own gospel album, Universal United House of Prayer (the 2005 Americana Album of the Year), the music is the primary focus. Patty’s regular guitarist and bandleader Doug Lancio leads a wonderful group of players that is primarily composed of members of the Raising Sand (Alison Krauss & Robert Plant) touring band. Add to that guest vocals from Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin, Jim Lauderdale, Raul Malo, Mike Farris, Buddy & Julie Miller, and Regina & Ann McCrary.

With their help, songs like “Move Up,” “If I Had My Way,” and “I Smell a Rat” shuffle along with a definite purpose and a danceable country-blues shuffle. Even the old standby “Wade in the Water” is made to pop with a resonantly thumping stand up bass line and understated electric guitars. There’s plenty here to keep the ear of listeners who would never attend a Sunday service.
That’s not to say there aren’t some Sunday morning sounds present. “Never Grow Old” is a song I heard nearly every Sunday in the small town Freewill Baptist church where I was raised, and it’s performed with great reverence here. The album closing “All Creatures of Our God & King” is a beautifully sombre hymn that is effective with only Patty and a piano carrying the tune. It serves as an effective alter call at the end of the service.
The album is granted even more authenticity when you learn that Patty recorded the majority of her vocals while standing in the pulpit of the Downtown Presbyterian Church in Nashville. The 160-year-old church provided the perfect backdrop for this project and helped to infuse it with the spiritual trueness that an album like this needs.
Here are two tracks from the album… “Move Up” and “Never Grow Old.” Both are traditional gospel tunes, but are presented in differing styles here. The Staples Singers inspired “Move Up” serves as a solid contrast to the more stoic “Never Grow Old.” These two songs provide a good feel for the different styles and influences present on Downtown Church, and showcase why this album is such a compelling listen.
Patty Griffin: Move Up (Buy Album)
Patty Griffin: Never Grow Old (Buy Album)

One Response to “Patty Griffin: Downtown Church”

  1. A solid, prescient review of an album that just keeps getting better the more I listen. Nice work.

    Random Patty Griffin news of the day: she sings back-up on Bloodline, a track off of Mark Morris' new album. Morris, in case you're curious, is an ex-mouseketeer who previously cowrote songs with and for Kelly Clarkson and Christina Aguilera; Matt, who just did a gorgeous cover of Hallelujah on the Haiti fundraiser with Justin Timberlake, is the first artist to be released on Timberlake's new label.

    Just thought that was odd. One more harbinger of the total collapse of pop, if nothing else.

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