“Ambulance drivers and grave diggers/Mislaid fortunes grown bigger and bigger/Polar ice caps below and above/Conquered and claimed and ruined for love,” Patty Griffin’s porous, earthy alto quiver ripples as “You Never Asked Me” spins to its climax. “As we glide along all the bends of time/Falling for little tricks of the mind/With memories of Eden so far behind/And the taste of melting snow…” The gently kneaded piano falls away, and echoes of Randy Newman, early Tom Waits, a hushed drift of Rickie Lee Jones remain as Griffin weighs love’s illusions and the price people will pay to hold it. As a few scattered notes tumble and the song circles back to its first verse, Servant of Love’s clear-eyed central theme is laid bare.
Patty Griffin has always been an idiosyncratic artist who pursued her own visions whether that took her back to wistful childhood memories or rocking out hard or proclaiming her faith. Her best recordings seemed to be offerings to a personal muse rather than a crafted version of what an album was supposed to be. Her latest disc, Servant of Love may be her tenth but it is the first one she has released on her own imprint (in conjunction with Thirty Tigers).
This is knockout. Whether splitting from Robert Plant last year convinced her to go for broke, Patti Griffin is roaring with her own Black (Appalachian) Country fervour. And this is not Americana, whatever that is. As an eclectic barrage of chamber folk and jazzy blues seeps through both the title track and Gunpowder, the listener is taken to far more experimental corners than are usually encountered on a roots recording.
Patty Griffin has always been an artist fearlessly, eagerly willing to follow her muse wherever it may take her, and few artists can bare their souls in the recording studio with such compelling results. For her ninth studio album, 2015's Servant of Love, Griffin has given herself more creative freedom than ever before, as it's the first release from PGM Recordings, her own independent label. While Servant of Love doesn't sound like an album she couldn't have made for one of her former sponsors, it is a bravely eclectic, often enigmatic work that doesn't announce all its attentions at first glance, but allows Griffin to use her lyrics and voice to communicate a soulful style that's as much about tone as the literal message of the verses.
Patty GriffinServant Of Love(Thirty Tigers)Rating: 4 out of 5 stars For every fan eager to follow as you color outside the lines, there are plenty of others that may yell “Judas,” as was famously slung at Bob Dylan when he had the audacity to front an electric blues rock band in 1966. It remains a tricky balancing act to expand conventional styles without alienating the audience it has taken years, even decades, to acquire. Neil Young has practically made a business out of it and others such as Tom Waits have elevated their status by shifting their approach in more experimental directions.
It’s customary to describe Patty Griffin as one of the great singer-songwriters of the Americana scene, but this bravely experimental new set shows her expanding her range even further, adding touches of jazz and echoes of north Africa. It’s an album dominated by songs of love and loss, in which the musical settings constantly change. She starts with a drifting mood piece backed by piano and trumpet, then switches from introspection to a furious climax, before moving on to an edgy bar-room stomp and the powerful, quietly angry Good and Gone, the story of a police shooting treated with a bluesy/Arabic edge perhaps influenced by her time working with Robert Plant’s Band of Joy.
When Jimmie Rodgers, the "Father of Country Music," cut "Blue Yodel #9" with Louis Armstrong in 1930, combining rural mountain music with blues and jazz was a great idea. When Bob Wills expanded on it a few years later, it still was. Servant of Love is the latest iteration of this impulse. Yet at core, it is simply American roots music, which is what Patty Griffin's art has always been about.
Patty Griffin's 10th record - and post-Robert Plant breakup album - is an unexpected, independent-spirited move (also released independently and distributed by Thirty Tigers). Initially, Servant Of Love's various flavours - minimalist piano balladry, dirty blues, dark, jazzy trumpet flourishes, rockabilly, droney, hypnotic folk rock - are hard to wrap your head around. Griffin has said her open tunings were inspired by the freer approach she took on long-unreleased Lanois-produced Silver Bell, and a number of the songs are loosely structured, bluesy and atmospheric, evoking British psych-folk and even ragas.
Since her 1996 bow Living With Ghosts, Patty Griffin has codified a beloved corner of Americana. Beginning with jazz-brushed piano on its opening title track, the longtime local's ninth studio disc deliberately departs from the home-and-hearth warmth of 2013 fan fave American Kid, however. Servant of Love is anything but standard. Griffin deftly experiments with Arabic-style guitar-picking and eerie, chanting vocals on the stark and political "Good and Gone," which was inspired by a 2014 police shooting.