Patty Griffin, ‘American Kid’
Ever since her rootsy 1996 debut “Living with Ghosts,” Patty Griffin has found inspiration in the deep, dark corners of life. Written in the midst of her father’s death, “American Kid” serves to honor him in the best way Griffin knows how: with song. Griffin go-tos, like mortality and loneliness, reoccur in the elaborately painted snapshots that play out like chapters of a book – each one taking you closer to the end of a story. That bitter end is “Gonna Miss You When You’re Gone,” a glimmer of hope in her grief. The wistful opener, “Go Wherever You Wanna Go,” imagines eternal rest as the release of life’s burdens. But this isn’t a dedication that merely mourns. In fact, it doesn’t do much of that at all. It remembers. Sung in first person, the man in “Irish Boy” and “Faithful Son” is an overlooked wallflower – a war vet who went his whole life doing unto others and still slipped through the cracks. “Little children came and grew, moved away and never knew who I was or who I am; no, they never knew this lonely man,” Griffin laments on the latter, as a guitar waxes with escalating percussion and an ethereal voiced Robert Plant carrying out the track like a spirit sailing off to the sky. Capturing scenes from everyday life, “American Kid” riffs on an abandoned mutt (heartbreaker “Wild Old Dog”), a frisky fella courting his new wife (“Get Ready Marie,” her most playful song ever) and transcendence (spiritual “Ohio”). It sweeps the earthiness of “Living with Ghosts” into a sublime Americana sound with the heart and soul – and certainly the songs – of Patty at her prime. In a career repertoire of highs, this one goes all the way to the heavens. Grade: A
James Blake, ‘Overgrown’
James Blake doesn’t care if you rip his sophomore album for free. He said so in a recent interview, noting that the label is not in agreement with his very generous marketing strategy (oh, I wonder why). Blake is either really modest with his music, or he’s selling the prowess on display during “Overgrown” so short – it doesn’t get shorter than free – he’s unconcerned with profiting from it. But he certainly deserves to. Having claimed a fair amount of indie clout with 2011’s self-titled debut, the English virtuoso ambles into the same electro “post-dubstep” lushness that scored him a Mercury Music Prize nod that year. This time, Blake approaches his work with even more refined precision and the delicately winsome soundscapes that summon the abstractness, wonder and dream states of Bon Iver and Sigur Ros – all the while, his melty-voiced endearment pulls you in like the tide. The title track’s cascading piano is swallowed by a whorl of sound euphoria; “Life Round Here” fuzzes and sizzles into a hooky soul hypnosis (it also features an unforgettable thread: “Everything feels like a touchdown on a rainy day”); “DLM” strips back the atmospherics for just a simple melody and still mesmerizes. Even the rap Wu-Tang Clan leader RZA lays down on “Take a Fall for Me” jibes with Blake’s subtly melodic and stunningly cinematic work. “Overgrown” is the kind of outre album that commands quietly with its minimalism and soothing sensitivity, as it frames a world of majestic sonic grace. That sounds like something that deserves some monetary recognition, don’t you think? Grade: A-
Amy Grant, ‘How Mercy Looks From Here’
What’s Amy Grant been up to in the 10 years since her last studio album? Living. There’s no “Baby Baby” on the Christian-pop darling’s long-gestated work, because these songs are formed from wisdom and reality: seizing the day (“Our Time Is Now” with Carole King), love’s boundlessness (“Deep As It Is Wide” with Sheryl Crow and Eric Paslay; a threesome pulled off masterfully) and a vow of acceptance (“Golden,” a welcome throwback to Grant’s ’80s catalog). Life at 52 also means confronting grief and sadness; the inspiring title track carries the burden of both, as does the somber “Shovel in Hand.” Those songs, like all of “Mercy,” aren’t pretty pop – but they’re real.
Alice Russell, ‘To Dust’
Adele better hurry with that junior album if she doesn’t want Alice Russell to swipe the soul-diva spotlight from her. The British songstress’ “To Dust” – her fifth solo release in just over a decade – is cut from the same cloth of vintage soul that launched Adele into global stardom. Now it’s Russell’s turn. Besides a voice big and bold enough to wage war, the U.K. singer is also completely invested in the torrent of emotions rippling through this old-school R&B revival. About those emotions: they’re everywhere, from the sad demise of a relationship (“I Loved You”) to defiance (“A to Z”) and desperation (“4 a While”). It’s time she get her big break, America.