UMC.org Music Review
Patty Griffin: Children Running Through
Sound/Style: Emotionally evocative progressive folk and alternative country
By Steve Morley
(UMC.org)--Singer/songwriter Patty Griffin enjoys a solid reputation as a leading force on the alternative folk music scene, as well as credibility as a commercial writer with songs recorded by The Dixie Chicks, Martina McBride and other chart-topping pop and country acts. Her introspective and often downbeat material has perhaps limited her success as a mainstream artist, though her skill at conveying complex emotions places her in songwriting’s top ranks. On her seventh release, Children Running Through, she opens up the stylistic floodgates and unleashes the power of her typically restrained alto voice. Her artistry loses nothing in the translation, though the mainstream still may not be ready for Griffin’s expansive vision, which alternates atmospheric folk and country with one-offs ranging from aggressive acoustic rock, classic soul, and unusually funky fare like "Stay on the Ride." The offbeat track initially seems aimless, but it cleverly unpacks the theme of journey versus destination, with an elderly passenger displaying life wisdom to an uncomprehending bus driver: "And the driver says ‘You don’t know where this bus is going to?’/ Old man says ‘No I don’t, do you?’/ Driver says ‘You don’t know where this bus is going to?’/ Old man says ‘I just want it to get me through/ I’m staying on the ride/ It’s gonna take me somewhere.’"
Griffin still takes on weighty subjects, and while she looks for rays of light, she doesn’t whitewash over life’s potential for pain. In "Trapeze," a duet with Emmylou Harris, she paints a circus performer whose daring feats and quietly broken heart represent the courage it takes to risk living fully. She effectively blends moods in "Heavenly Day," turning a overcast medium blues into a yin-and-yang meditation on troubles and times of refreshment: "Forget all our troubles in these moments so few/ All that we really have to do/ Is have ourselves a heavenly day."
"No Bad News" rides on a strident acoustic guitar and repels negativity with resiliency and resolve: "And we won’t be afraid/ We won’t be afraid/ And though the darkness may come our way/ We won’t be afraid to be alive anymore/ And we’ll grow kindness in our hearts for all the strangers among us/ Till there are no strangers anymore."
While Griffin gets considerable mileage from her commitment to fight life’s good fight, she acknowledges the need for a greater source of strength in "Up to the Mountain," inspired by the final speech of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. The poignant track, which finds the place where glory and human weakness meet, is the record’s most powerful, summoning deep sorrow without abandoning hope: "Sometimes I lay down/ No more can I do/ But then I go on again/ Because you asked me to."
Griffin’s gift for evocative images is especially evident on the loungy jazz of "You’ll Remember" and on "Burgundy Shoes," a memoir of Griffin’s childhood in Maine. The piece, in which Griffin remembers her mother through admiring young-girl eyes, focuses on a particular moment in time and thaws the frozen emotions held within: "We wait for the bus that’s going to Bangor/ In my plaid dress and burgundy shoes/ In your red lipstick and lilac kerchief/ You’re the most pretty lady in the world."
Griffin has said that songs like "Burgundy Shoes" are drawn from the clear and less complicated vision of youth when life registers more intensely, leaving us with perhaps richer images than our distracted adult minds generally perceive. While that may be true, Griffin seemingly never lost the ability to observe lucid and meaningful scenes. On the shifting musical and emotional landscape of Children Running Through, she captures many such images while never losing sight of the larger panorama that adult life has to offer.
"Stay on the Ride"