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I've loved Patty Griffin since 1996's Living With Ghosts, where she premiered a voice that could purr and whisper and insinuate on its own successful terms, but rose to quick, sharp stabs, as if the singer was testing her pain threshold against her own internal front burner.

She's cleaned up on other folks covering her songs (Bette Midler, Jessica Simpson, Joan Osborne) but suffered canceled albums and record-company shuffles over the years. She stands, most of the time, at that mystical nexus where rock meets pop meets country meets the amorphous commodity of the "coffeehouse singer." And as the world's greatest coffeehouse singer, she turns any song she sings into any style she pleases — though she usually pleases to stay stuck between styles, blending streams into singular rivers. But her songs never sound like mutants. They sound like children.

She just joined Robert Plant's Band of Joy and I'm hoping that if you buy a ticket, you'll find Downtown Church and her other records at that merch table. I can't get with Christianity, but I love the pining of the music, savor the visions ("We Shall All Be Reunited"), even if I can't, finally, swallow them; and shiver, like the Hades-obsessed boy I once was, at visions of sinful lives paid for in fire.

Griffin isn't much for damnation, though, once she's laid down Hank Sr.'s "House of Gold." Not that the light of faith shines always gently: when Samson tears the temple down in "If I Had My Way," you hear Griffin's hot spots again, nearly matched by Regina and Ann McCrary. Guest stars wander in and out but keep clear of variety-show stiffness. Black and white, old and young, children of all ages find just right way to testify. The world's gonna have to get more like this, to deliver real salvation.

  • Album: Downtown Church (2010)
  • Artist: Patty Griffin
  • Label: Credential Recordings
  • Songs: (1) House Of Gold (2) Move Up (3) Little Fire (4) Death's Got a Warrant (5) If I Had My Way (6) Coming Home to Me (7) Wade in the Water (8) Never Grow Old (9) Virgen de Guadalupe (10) I Smell a Rat (11) Waiting for My Child (12) The Strange Man (13) We Shall Be Reunited (14) All Creatures of Our God and King
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