Monday, March 15, 2010

CD Reviews: Josh Ritter's "So Runs the World Away,' Patty Griffin's "Downtown Church"

“So Runs the World Away” (Out May 4)

Through the years we’ve become very familiar with Josh’s stories, both in song and between songs in concert. From “Lillian, Egypt” to “The Temptation of Adam,” he’s proven to be a natural storyteller. So it is no surprise that on his new album, the literary “So Runs the World Away,” the focus turns to tales of cursed mummies and ships seeking new worlds. It is also makes sense that Josh is working on his first novel, called “Bright’s Passage,” due sometime next year. The songs on “So Runs the Word Away,” says Josh, “are larger and more detailed and feel to me as if they were painted in oil on large canvasses.”
As we’ve learned with each new album, Josh constantly moves in new directions, never willing to settle in a style or a sound for too long.
So after the rockin’, brash “Historical Conquests” album, this time we get a much more cerebral one overflowing with imagery set against a palette of sound, rather than the raucous backing of the past, by the newly dubbed Royal City Band of Zack Hickman (bass), Sam Kassirer (keyboards), Austin Nevins (guitar) and Liam Hurley (drums). We also get, for the first time, a female voice, provided by Dawn Landes, backing Josh on some tunes.
The album opens with a 56-second, almost orchestral instrumental “Curtains.” It is followed by “Change of Time,” a love song with an intricate musical layering of instruments similar to “Conquests,” and one of the signatures of Sam as producer. (He’s produced these last two Josh albums, as well as Erin McKeown’s last album, “Hundreds of Lions.”)
Our first taste of Josh’s storytelling on the album is on “The Curse,” about a mummy who is awakened by an archeologist and falls in love with her. The song is mesmerizingly brilliant, filled with lines that make you lean in to your stereo to hear every word: “She asks are you cursed but his answer’s obscured in a sandstorm of flashbulbs and rowdy reporters.” As the mummy grows stronger, the woman grows weaker, and there lies the curse. The spare and delicate backing by band adds to the tension of the song.
The other standout story-song on the album is “Another New World,” a 7-minute, 39-second journey to new lands aboard the ship the Annabel Lee, this captain’s love. Is it possible Josh is using the Edgar Allan Poe love story, “Annabel Lee,’’ as a guide to his own tale? The song is filled with incredible imagery, as if Josh actually took the trip himself.
It’s good to point out that not all the songs on “So Runs the World Away” are contemplative ones. “Rattling Locks” rocks with Josh playing the angry ex, spitting out, “Black hole, black hole how can your two eyes be empty as they look/All along I thought I was giving you my love but you were just stealing it and now I want back every single thing that you took.” This song, which opens with a percussion/guitar growl, will be a showstopper in concert. “The Remnant,” with Josh churning out the lyrics faster than you can take them in, is another beat-heavy, rockin’ tune.
There are plenty more songs to explore on the album. “Southern Pacifica,” the Springsteen-esque “Lantern” and “Long Shadows” are all worthy of the journeys they take you on. “Folk Bloodbath” is a tune that Josh has kicked around for years, but never recorded. It finally sees the light of day, complete with female backing vocals.
“So Runs the World Away” once again expands the art of Josh Ritter. His stories have now taken on a life of their own and galvanized his songs.

Patty Griffin

“Downtown Church” (Out now)

No one should be surprised by Patty Griffin’s latest album, an all-gospel affair titled “Downtown Church.” For those listening closely to her last two albums, there were hints at this direction in a number of those songs.
It is also not stunning to realize how well her voice fits the genre. It may not have been apparent that gospel is in her DNA, but we are fairly certain it is in her soul.
“Downtown Church” is a collection of 14 songs, mostly covers but a few originals recorded in a 160-year-old Presbyterian church in Nashville. Each song is sung in Patty’s distinctive, wonderfully expressive voice and many include guests – ranging from Emmylou Harris to Regina and Ann McCrary, Buddy Miller, and others.
The album opens with Patty singing solo on Hank Williams’ hush of a tune “House of Gold.” But that mood doesn’t last long, as she jumps right into the uptempo Southern rave “Move Up,” with help from the McCrarys, Miller, and Jim Lauderdale. You can just picture the congregation in the church pews in full swing.
She continues to mix traditional tunes (“Wade Into the Water”) with blues (an inspiring “If I Had My Way”). She even contributes two originals, “Little Fire” and “Coming Home to Me,” that meld perfectly with the album’s spirit of redemption and the power of faith.
To our ears, the best tunes are the ones that make us move our body, such as the aforementioned “Move Up” and the snakey R&B-tinged “I Smell a Rat.”
In all, “Downtown Church” may not end up as one of Patty Griffin’s most widely loved albums, but it is clearly a part of her musical personality and it is a genuine expression of her passion.

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