Style: Eclectic gospel/country/folk; compare to Emmylou Harris, Buddy & Julie Miller
Top tracks: "Little Fire," Move Up," "Coming Home to Me"
It's a country music staple: the singer who takes a break from the rigors of love and heartache to record a gospel album. Patty Griffin lives at the intersection of folk and country music, and wouldn't be caught dead in a cowgirl hat, but her latest album still follows in a noble and sometimes wince-inducing tradition.
Fortunately, Griffin doesn't have to worry. Produced by jack-of-all-country-trades Buddy Miller, featuring a bevy of Americana's best solo artists and session musicians, and recorded in a historic Nashville church, Downtown Church (ATO Records) **** is far from a disappointment. Griffin, with six increasingly gospel-oriented singer/songwriter albums to her credit, is in superb voice throughout. And the guest list is the royalty of contemporary roots and country music, among them Buddy's wife, Julie, Mavericks' singer Raul Malo, ace fiddler Stuart Duncan, and Americana grand dame Emmylou Harris, who is as omnipresent as God, at least in Nashville.
To her credit, Griffin brings a catholic (small "c," although the Roman church figures into the mix, too) taste to her gospel smorgasbord. The album features country and bluegrass classics, well-known and obscure African-American spirituals, a Hispanic hymn, two original folk compositions, and a hymn credited to Francis of Assisi. That's as eclectic as it gets.
Griffin fares best on the black gospel songs, where her fluid melismas and soulful vocals are perfectly suited to the material. The chilling "Death's Got a Warrant" is a country blues fire-and-brimstone sermon, while the better known "Wade in the Water" and "If I Had My Way" are rescued from overexposure by superb backing vocals from gospel great Regina McCrary. Griffin's more tentative and less successful on the country/bluegrass tracks. Hank Williams' "House of Gold" and the traditional "Never Grow Old" are stately but a little staid. But she redeems herself with the gorgeous "We Shall All Be Reunited," an obscure country hymn from Carter Family contemporary Alfred Karnes, and which features a hair-raising vocal trio performance from Griffin, Emmylou Harris, and Shawn Colvin.
There's one head-scratching misstep here, Big Mama Thornton's "I Smell a Rat," a perfectly fine R&B track that catalogues the excesses of a two-timin', hard-drinkin' man, but which sticks out like a Saturday night roadhouse brawl in the middle of this otherwise sacred collection. But it's a minor quibble on what turns out to be a surprisingly diverse and beautifully sung album.
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