Patty Griffin’s brilliant 1996 debut album Living With Ghosts introduced listeners to one of the most impressive singer/ songwriters of her generation. The combination of Griffin’s stunning voice and her skills as a composer of accessible and unforgettable tunes has earned her a steadily growing following over the course of almost 20 years. What’s more, other artists, including Bette Midler, Emmylou Harris, the Dixie Chicks and even Susan Boyle, also love her songs and have made a point of recording them with reverence. Additionally, Griffin set herself apart from others by being daring on the edgy songs of her second album Flaming Red, the ambitiously spiritual Downtown Church and the consistently stunning pair, Impossible Dream and Children Running Through. Her new album Servant of Love (PGM/Thirty Tigers), leans more toward her experimental side, with Griffin taking new musical risks, especially with her vocals. This comes through most prominently on the title cut, the stomping “Gunpowder,” “There Isn’t One Way,” “Snake Charmer” and “You Never Asked Me.”
It’s been more than 20 years since Jewel released her major-label debut Pieces of You. The album took a while to catch on, but once it did, she and songs such as “You Were Meant For Me,” “Who Will Save Your Soul” and “Foolish Games,” were virtually inescapable. Additionally, Jewel became one of those artists whose back-story (living in a van, working the coffeehouse residency circuit) became almost as important as the music itself. The savvy belter not only released a string of albums since that time, but she also parlayed her success into a career as an author and actress. Picking Up The Pieces (Sugar Hill), Jewel’s first non-genre specific release in five years, offers a nod to her debut, but falls short of that album’s energy and spirit. Call it a loss of innocence, the now-divorced Jewel is not the same person she was (but who among us is?). Album opener “Love Used To Be” and second track “A Boy Needs A Bike” get things off to a strong, if sad, start. If Jewel has a weakness, it would be her lyrics, in spite of the fact that she considers herself a poet. Nevertheless, Jewel pulls through on duets with Rodney Crowell (“It Doesn’t Hurt Right Now”) and Dolly Parton (“My Father’s Daughter”), as well as on the “Pretty Faced Fool” cover, which distract from some of the monotony.
There’s something bittersweet about listening to Holdin’ The Bag (Acetate) by cow-punk band Supersuckers. Recorded shortly before Supersucker’s lead vocalist Eddie Spaghetti was diagnosed with Stage 3 throat cancer, Holdin’ The Bag is as rowdy and raucous as insurgent country gets. The Hayes Carll duet “This Life…With You,” “Man On A Mission,” “Let’s Bounce,” “Jibber Jabber” and “Shimmy & Shake” are all super examples. Of course, there’s much more to Supersuckers, as you can hear on the marvelous Lydia Loveless duet “I Can’t Cry” as well as “All My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down).”
Calexico also emerged in the alt-country scene just like Supersuckers did. Also like Supersuckers, Joey Burns and John Convertino of Calexico appreciate the value of collaboration. Edge of the Sun (Anti-), Calexico’s latest album features a stellar line-up of guest musicians joining the band which bring the songs vibrantly to life. That’s Neko Case on “Tapping on the Line,” Pieta Brown on “When the Angels Played,” Amparo Sanchez on “Cumbia de Donde,” and Gaby Moreno “Miles From The Sea,” all of whom contribute to making Edge of the Sun one of Calexico’s most luminous discs.
Whether they like it or not, subliminally religious upper Midwestern trio Low unleashed the “slowcore” genre on the world and continues to mine the field on its new disc Ones and Sixes (Sub Pop). First and foremost, what Low fans want (and what they get) are the ethereal harmonies of Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk. Scratchy and thumpy electronics give songs such as; the anything but gentle “Gentle,” the near epic “Landslide,” “The Innocents” and “Kid In The Corner,” a distinctly modern feel. They also balance the crawl of “No Comprende,” “Spanish Translation,” “Congregation,” and “Into You” with the retro pop of “No End” and “What Part of Me.”