Irony can be rather cruel. Within the lyrical context of “Top of the World”, the masterful singer-songwriter Patty Jean Griffin probably never expected to write a chorus that would reflect the fate of the album it would first be featured on. Aching with introspective fragility, the song conveys the regrets of a man who died and is looking down from above, contemplating the errors of his life.
Shelved during of the great record label consolidation of the early 2000s, Patty Griffin's Silver Bell is indeed a "lost album" but it is not one that carries mythic weight. Griffin rebounded relatively quickly after Silver Bell's abandoned release -- two years later, she signed with ATO and released 1000 Kisses, the first in a series of regular records all receiving greater acclaim and stronger sales -- and Silver Bell itself strengthened her reputation and bank account due to covers by the Dixie Chicks, who cut "Top of the World" and "Truth #2" on 2002's Home (over a decade later, Natalie Maines once again returned to this album for its title track, recording "Silver Bell" for her 2013 solo debut, Mother). If the Chicks' covers suggest that the album has a strong country flavor, that's not necessarily wrong, but there’s a roiling rock undertow tempered by a smoky, late-night soulfulness that gives this album its emotional resonance.
When you hear the term “lost album,” chances are it conjures images of tortured genius Brian Wilson unable to finish his magnum opus Smile, or Prince deciding that The Black Album was evil and shelving its release, juicy stuff like that. Alas, the story is a bit more mundane for Patty Griffin, whose intended third album, Silver Bell, was recorded in 2000 but got lost in the shuffle of a record company ownership change. All’s well that ends well though, because the timing couldn’t be better for the release of Silver Bell after all these years.
Silver Bell is an object lesson in how radically and thoroughly the music industry has changed in the 21st century. Coming off two very critically acclaimed yet commercially unspectacular albums, Patty Griffin recorded her third album in 1999 at Daniel Lanois’ New Orleans studio, with the understanding that A&M Records would release it just as it had released her 1996 debut, Living with Ghosts, and her 1998 follow-up, Flaming Red. However, the label had recently been purchased by Universal Music, which shuffled the imprints and upended the hierarchy.
Here's a tale that sums up the modern record industry: One of the best albums of 2000 wasn't released until 2013. Patty Griffin's former label spurned Silver Bell, possibly because it didn't fit her "folkie" image, but now that she's won a Grammy and joined a band with Robert Plant, Griffin's level of acclaim has given the album a reprieve. Though Silver Bell meanders at times, "Little God" (which might be about the devil) and the vengeful "Sorry and Sad" pit her thoughtful, detailed lyrics and blue, reedy voice against tough Stones-in-the-bayou guitars.
It’s not impolite to suggest that Griffin’s profile was given a massive boost by her work with Robert Plant on his 2010 Band Of Joy album, and the subsequent groundswell of interest in her music meant healthier-than-before sales for American Kid earlier this year. The association may well also have prompted the belated appearance of this collection from the turn of the century. Silver Bell was a victim of musical chairs: funded by A&M in 2000 but left gathering dust on a shelf when the company changed ownership – though a brace of its songs were covered two years later by Dixie Chicks on their mega-selling album Home, and the title track turned up on Chicks’ leader Natalie Maines’ recent solo record.
The Dixie Chicks must be disappointed. They've borrowed often from Patty Griffin's lost disc Silver Bell, which sat on a shelf of the local songbird's then-label, A&M Records, for 13 years. The Chicks made good use of down-home folk-pop "Truth #2" and the longing acoustic address of "Top of the World," while frontwoman Natalie Maines recently used the album's untamed title track as a highlight of her solo debut.
Legendary lost albums have always held a certain fascination, the sort of thing that prompts fans and fanatics to muse about music hidden in the recesses of history. The Beach Boy’s Smile, Dylan’s Great White Wonder and the Who’s Lifehouse provide but a few tempting examples of a proverbial mother lode, but those aren’t the only elusive offerings sought by collectors. Though it’s hardly as legendary as the aforementioned efforts, Patty Griffin’s long lost Silver Bell provides a similar lure.