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Three Women Singing Pretty

I love Patty Griffin with what John Green might call “an evangelical zeal.” But for my ten years of fandom, I had never seen her in concert. My opportunity finally came on the Use Your Voice tour, which meant seeing her on stage with Anais Mitchell and Sara Watkins. I saw Anais back in 2012 with my old roommate Lisa, and I’ve been a big fan ever since. Sara Watkins was a member of the bluegrass band Nickel Creek, now a solo artist. Even though this show wasn’t going to be all Patty, all the time, I knew it would be a cool experience.

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The show was in the O’Shaughnessy Auditorium at St. Catherine University. It’s a fairly intimate setting, appropriate for this type of mellow performance. Although the show started a little late, we were blessedly spared an opening act. (Yes, I’ve seen some good openers in my time, but it’s hard to be patient when the main event is so close at hand.) Patty Griffin was the de facto leader of the group, being the oldest and most famous. This earned her the center microphone, and her songs opened and closed the show. Other than that, the show was a “round robin” with the women taking turns picking a song. While one was playing her song, the others would provide harmony vocals, instrumentals, even percussion.

All three women are beautiful vocalists, and hearing them harmonize was a dream. As the opening number, Patty’s song “Love Throws A Line” presented an enthusiastic and unified group. The downside of solo artists in a group format is hearing fewer songs from each artist. Given that limitation, I would have loved to see all three of them have a role in every song, even though I imagine that would be more challenging musically. Overall the alternating format was a wise decision though. If you only know one or two of the artists’ music, there’s never a long wait between familiar songs, which keeps the audience engaged.

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My personal highlight was Anais playing three songs from Young Man in America, an album that I absolutely love. “Dyin’ Day” and “Young Man in America” already have beautiful harmonies, so they were perfect for the group. Anais also brought the house down with “Why We Build the Wall,” a song from her folk opera Hadestown. As she pointed out, the song was written ten years ago, but it feels eerily appropriate for the current political landscape.

As for Patty Griffin, her voice is impeccable in concert. She’s released nine studio albums, so six songs are barely going to scratch the surface of what a fan might want to hear. I would have happily traded one or both gospel numbers for a couple of songs from American Kid. A solo concert is definitely still on my to-do list. That being said, it was lovely to see her in this setting, collaborating with and supporting other female artists. I was feeling the folksy feminist love.


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Best of 2015: Music Edition, Part 1

Picking my favorite songs came with a new challenge this year. In January I started going to the gym, so a lot of the new music in my life was geared toward workout playlists. But are those necessarily the ones that I consider the best? In the end I chose a few highlights from the workout realm and otherwise chose favorites from everyday listening. Any song that I encountered for the first time in 2015 is fair game, whether it was released this year or ten years ago.

10. Florence + the Machine, “Third Eye”

I wasn’t over the moon about the third Florence + the Machine album, in part because it has less of the bombast that I enjoy in their previous albums. However, “Third Eye” is one track that scratches that itch. I love the imagery of the chorus: “There’s a hole where your heart lies / And I can see it with my third eye.”

9. Fitz and the Tantrums, “6am”

This year a lot of my exposure to new music came from ALT 93, a new alternative station. I was somewhat familiar with Fitz and the Tantrums, but hearing them on the radio regularly inspired me to actually buy an album. “6am” is my favorite for jamming in the car, a soulful groove with a mix of male and female voices.

8. Beth Orton, “Sugar Boy”

Rainbow Rowell makes playlists for her novels, and “Sugar Boy” is on one of the playlists for Carry On. I listened to Beth Orton a bit in high school, but not the Trailer Park album. Her husky voice is particularly well-suited to this song. “Told you I loved you / You beat my heart black and blue” is one lyric that always gives me fond flashbacks to Carry On, as strange as that may sound.

7. Bleachers, “Rollercoaster”

“Rollercoaster” was on my very first workout playlist, so it has a special place in my heart. I find it energizing from start to finish, and the romantic yet slightly off-kilter lyrics are just my taste. I can highly recommend it as a way to keep things peppy while doing cardio—or, you know, cleaning the apartment.

6. Patty Griffin, “You Never Asked Me”

I love sad songs. I love Patty Griffin. Give me a sad Patty Griffin song, and I am mush. “You Never Asked Me” is a heartbreaking piano ballad with a simple message to an ex-partner: “I don’t believe in love like that anyway / The kind that comes along once and just saves the day.” Please excuse me while I go weep in the corner about how beautiful this song is. (If you’re interested, I reviewed the entire Servant of Love album here.)

Come back tomorrow for my 5 favorite songs of 2015!

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Patty Griffin Have I Loved

Servant of Love Cover

You have to face yourself and face what you’re made of, or turn away from it. And people turn away from it in a lot of different ways, usually looking for safety. But the road is not easy or casual. Life requires things from you—if you’re really living it and are really alive—that are really difficult and painful, and you can’t avoid those things if you’re really participating.

Some call it Americana. Some call it alt-country or folk. However you categorize Patty Griffin’s music, she’s one of the best singer-songwriters alive. If you don’t believe me, just look at all the better-known artists who have recorded her songs. Or look at this quote (above) from her recent interview with Paste. The woman knows how to make beauty out of pain.

Servant of Love, her latest release, defies categorization more than her recent albums. Patty says that she was inspired by listening to her lost third album, which was remixed and released in 2014. I bought Silver Bell last year, but I never connected with it like I have most of her albums. However, the vibe on Servant of Love also reminds me of her second album, which I adore. Somewhat of a mishmash in its influences, with admittedly a few awkward tracks, but still engaging and delightful.

Depending on the song, Patty Griffin tends to take on the role of the sage or the storyteller. Her last album strongly favored the storytelling side as it explored her father’s life and death, but Servant of Love shows more of the sage. My favorite example is “There Isn’t One Way,” a song that reminds us not to live our lives by someone else’s standards and not to impose our standards on others. As she says, “there’s just you and your heart and the part you’ve gotta play.” It’s wise and catchy! “Shine a Different Way” is another song in the sage vein, and its quiet hopefulness make for a nice album closer.

There are some exquisite ballads on this album, and I would expect nothing less from Patty. “You Never Asked Me” is probably one of the saddest songs she’s ever written, which is really saying something. She’s telling her ex-lover that she doesn’t believe in romantic love as a magical cure to life’s woes, and she would have told him that if he’d asked. But he never asked! I need a minute—that’s some poignant stuff. “250,000 Miles” is a more meandering ballad about womanhood and motherhood. The eerie instrumentals undercut the beautiful vocals, making the song a dynamic experience.

It’s a rare album that I want to listen to from start to finish. There are always a few that fail to excite, at least enough to make me skip ahead to the better tracks. The only songs on Servant of Love that lose my attention are the jazz-influenced tunes, which just aren’t to my taste. Otherwise it’s an excellent example of Patty Griffin the sage. I’m sure that I will grow to appreciate the album even more in the coming months as subtle moments are brought to my attention through repeated listening. How often can you honestly say that about an album?


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Best of 2013: Music Edition, Part 2

You will have to forgive some artist repetition in the top 10 songs this year. The new albums in my life were just too good to pick one song. Here are, completely genuine,  my top 5 favorite songs of 2013!

5. Gillian Welch, “Barroom Girls”

Gillian Welch is the troubadour of her own particular brand of dirt road wistfulness. I picked up her debut album at Cheapo, and it definitely lived up to its successors. No song is as engrossing as the yarn she spins on “Barroom Girls.” Case in point: “Last night’s spangles and yesterday’s pearls / Are the bright morning stars of the barroom girls.” Paints a picture, doesn’t it?

4. Fiona Apple, “Anything We Want”

Probably the sexiest song I’ve heard all year. Sultry is one of the first words that comes to mind when I think of Fiona Apple. The playful rhythms and coy lyrics blend perfectly on “Anything We Want.” As we used to say in the English department, form is content, and this woman knows how to make the music fit her message.

3. Flume, “Holdin On”

Last year’s list featured several songs discovered on The Current, but this year there’s only one. I heard this song on the radio a number of times, and then one day I thought, “This needs to be on my birthday playlist!” It’s a bit of a departure from my usual obsession with lyric-driven music, but there’s nothing wrong with just shaking a little booty.

2. Tegan and Sara, “Now I’m All Messed Up”

Yesterday I talked about Tegan and Sara writing peppy heartbreak anthems, but this song is just plain heartbreaking. And that’s what I love about it. Sara lays herself bare in the vocals. Through a few simple images, the song captures the desperation of imagining the person you love with someone else. “Now I’m All Messed Up” initiated many solo car singalongs in 2013.

1. Patty Griffin, “Don’t Let Me Die In Florida”

The title of this song comes from a comment made by Patty’s father in his later days, and the song itself plays like an unflinching story of his life. Her voice croons, growls, and everything in between. There are many greats songs on American Kid, an album praised thoroughly in a previous post, but I would never skip “Don’t Let Me Die In Florida.” I love when Patty gets into raucous mode. It just makes me happy.

Tomorrow the best book countdown begins!


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Best of 2013: Music Edition, Part 1

2013 wasn’t my most adventurous year in music. That being said, Tegan and Sara and Patty Griffin both released new albums, so it was a great year for discovering new favorites from my old favorites. As always, the list is open to any song that I encountered for the first time in 2013. (You probably don’t want me to talk about listening to the Fleetwood Mac Rumours album for the millionth time.) Enjoy numbers 10 through 6.

10. Elliott Smith, “Easy Way Out”

This fall included a very successful trip to Cheapo for used CDs. I figured it was time to own some Elliott Smith beyond the Good Will Hunting soundtrack. “Easy Way Out” is a perfect example of the sharp-edged melancholy that I love in him. This song should be a requirement on any breakup playlist, real or imagined.

9. Frou Frou, “Must Be Dreaming”

Frou Frou was a musical duo including Imogen Heap before she moved on to solo awesomeness. I picked up their album on another Cheapo trip last year, but I basically ignored it until sometime this summer. Three songs were already familiar to me from Garden State soundtrack days, and there’s much more Frou Frou goodness where that came from. “Must Be Dreaming” is pure joy.

8. Fiona Apple, “Hot Knife”

My significant other can attest that I made him listen to this song on multiple occasions. The playful back-and-forth of the lyrics are absolutely hypnotic. “Hot Knife” is somewhere between a song and a chant, with the parts blending together to create a frantic love anthem. But I think it’s the simple imagery of “If I’m butter then he’s a hot knife” that really gets me.

7. Patty Griffin, “Go Wherever You Wanna Go”

Patty Griffin has an uncanny ability to make sad topics seem joyful. I extolled the virtues of her new album American Kid in an earlier post, and this song is the perfect kickoff to that album. Addressed to her father after his passing, it expresses the rambling freedom that she wishes for him. Guaranteed to make you smile or cry (or both!).

6. Tegan and Sara, “How Come You Don’t Want Me”

Speaking of putting an upbeat face on depressing subjects, Tegan and Sara’s electropop album is brimming with peppy tunes about heartbreak. “How Come You Don’t Want Me” is my favorite example. I get excited when I hear those opening beats, and seeing Sara sing it live only cemented my love. I don’t care which genre their band wants to work in as long as the songs are still addictively gut-wrenching.

Come back tomorrow for the top 5!

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Patty Griffin, Queen of Americana

Without a doubt, Patty Griffin is my favorite vocalist. Her voice has the capacity to be both fragile and strong, and it doesn’t hurt that she’s also an amazing songwriter. She released a gospel album in 2010, but her last original album came out while I was still in high school. You can imagine my excitement when she announced a new album for 2o13, titled American Kid.

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Many of the songs on American Kid were inspired by her father, who passed away in 2009. Although that sounds like a recipe for the melancholy album, the songs are really a celebration of his life. Manhood is a major theme of American Kid, which reminds me of one of my favorite albums in 2012: Anais Mitchell’s Young Man in America. It may seem odd to explore masculinity through a female voice, but the theme actually gains poignancy in the hands of these two wonderfully subtle songwriters.

When I heard the new album was called American Kid, I was strangely uninspired. Well, it turns out to be a perfect title for this body of work. The title comes from “Not A Bad Man,” a song about a modern-day soldier returning from war, but it could just as easily refer to Griffin’s father. “Ohio” tells another quintessentially American story about slaves escaping across the Ohio River. Griffin is a master of representing different characters in her songs, whether it be a veteran or a slave or a woman missing her lover, and she unifies their voices through her own.

Griffin told Rolling Stone that American Kid is “grittier than anything I’ve done in a really long time.” I love all of her albums, but my favorite is still her first. Living with Ghosts is pure grit and beauty, in part because it’s based heavily on her original demo tapes. Her later albums evolved into a more ethereal production style. Both styles suit Griffin’s voice, but it’s nice to hear her stripped down again.

In traditional review fashion, I should point out some standout tracks on the album. I’m finding that particularly difficult today because this album has so many. It kicks off with “Go Wherever You Wanna Go,” a joyful tribute to her father. Next comes “Don’t Let Me Die In Florida,” a classic Patty screamer. “Irish Boy” is a perfect piano ballad. “Gonna Miss You When You’re Gone” is Patty at her sultry best. Before the album release, my only exposure to most of these songs was a radio performance posted on YouTube. It made for a great introduction, so I’ll share one of the videos here.

Patty Griffin is coming to Minneapolis on June 13. The ticket price is a little steep for me, but I hope to see her live someday. Until then I have this lovely new album to enjoy.


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3 Song Sampler: Patty Griffin

My blog is nearing its one-year anniversary, and I feel that it still has a lot of room to grow. With that goal in mind, I’m going to be experimenting with some different features in the upcoming months. That is, a type of post that I put out at regular intervals. I’ve been wanting to do a music feature for some time, and I finally landed on the 3 Song Sampler.

The idea of the 3 Song Sampler is to give a taste of a band or musician. Not necessarily their all-time best songs, but three songs that give an overview of what they can do. 3 Song Sampler will appear on Mondays, simply because Music Monday is alliterative. I’m kicking us off with one of my favorite musicians, the incomparable Patty Griffin.

1. “Rain”

If I had to describe Patty Griffin’s music in two words, they would be beautiful and devastating. She has one of the qualities that I must admire in an artist, which is the ability to transcend pain by turning it into something beautiful. “Rain” embodies this quality perfectly.

2. “No Bad News”

While Patty’s songs are often understated, she can really wail when she feels like it. Truth be told, I enjoy the loud voice just as much as the soft. Imagine her performing this song live, wearing red high heels and pounding on an acoustic guitar.

3. “Useless Desires”

Sometimes her songs can grow to epic proportions. The lyrics slowly unravel, and the music builds toward the final moment of catharsis. “Useless Desires” is bleak in its lyrical content, but somehow I always feel better after listening to it.

Patty Griffin is musical therapy.

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