Earlier this month I heard the folksinger Ellis Paul perform in concert, and he gave the perfect description of fellow singer/ songwriter Patty Griffin’s voice, since Patty has contributed vocals to several of Paul’s albums. He said that just as photogenic people never fail to look great on camera, Patty’s voice is “audiogenic” and never fails to sound great on a record. I would have to agree, wholeheartedly. Furthermore, in a 20-year career that spans five self-penned studio albums, Griffin has never written a single mediocre song. There are almost no other musical artists on the planet, honestly, of whom this can be said.
Griffin’s sophomore release, 1998’s Flaming Red, is my favorite album of the 1990s. I love it not only for its daring songwriting and sterling production values, but also for its bracing honesty and surprising yet seamless blending of musical styles. A few years ago, when I played the album for a good friend of mine, the writer Alfred Corn, he remarked that the album is “innovative as all get out.” Alfred’s a Southerner by birth, and his colloquial description of the music on Flaming Red couldn’t have been more accurate. Flaming Red shows an allegiance to no particular brand of music and actively refuses to be tied down to one. The album’s musical palette incorporates elements of hard rock (on the title track and “Wiggley Fingers”), twangy yet radio-friendly pop (“One Big Love” and “Blue Sky”), pensive guitar-centered numbers (“Change,” “Carry Me,” and “Big Daddy”), jazz and piano balladry (“Go Now” and “Peter Pan”), as well as a handful of poignant and finely tuned character sketches (“Tony,” “Christina,” and “Mary”) that perfectly bridge the worlds of folk and pop.
While Patty hails from her tiny hometown of Old Town, Maine, she’s resided in Austin, Texas, for over a decade now, and there’s certainly a Southern bent to her voice and the sound of much of her music. Her songs have been covered and popularized by the likes of such country music legends as the Dixie Chicks and Emmylou Harris, and she’s performed duets with many other diverse country music performers, from Willie Nelson to Dierks Bentley to Buddy and Julie Miller. Her debut album, Living with Ghosts (A&M Records, 1996), a polished-up acoustic collection of her jaw-dropping home demo tapes, introduced her to the world as a songwriter of the highest caliber, and also as a classic folk performer through and through. Her debut album provided the ideal stripped-down showcase for her stunningly bluesy, larger-than-life voice, which opened the door to the wide array of vocal acrobatics that she employs on Flaming Red.
I was fortunate to have been following Patty’s career for several years already before her first two albums were released. Back in those days, she actually worked as a switchboard operator at Harvard University in the very same department where I was working at the time, so I’d heard about her music and live shows from co-workers. Catching a truly talented performer at that early stage in her career is a rare opportunity; I was able to hear her sing live in 150-seat venues that are roughly 1/20th the size of the large theaters and arenas where she usually plays today.
Just after the release of Flaming Red, I saw Griffin in concert on August 19th, 1998, at Mama Kin Music Hall, a short-lived venue that was owned by Steven Tyler of Aerosmith and located on the famed Lansdowne Street in downtown Boston. (I feel pure shock when I look at my ticket stub from the show: only $10.00!) During her banter between songs, Patty made it clear that this particular venue — a throbbing, smoke-filled bar, with a stage intended for heavy metal acts, among others — was no place for a folk musician. “I’ve always thought of myself as a rock chick,” she proclaimed. And giving herself back that level of artistic permission is what Flaming Red was all about, from the opening burst of pounding drums to the final quiet piano notes.
Like all of the very best albums, Flaming Red is a song cycle, deliberate in its sonic presentation and track sequencing. With that in mind, what follows is my thorough song-by-song overview of the album, with some extra background information (from live performances and otherwise) added in along the way.
The album’s opening title track kicks off the record with a grinding, all-out rock number that’s clearly intended to startle the listener. Think back for just a moment to “Not Alone,” the closing track on Patty’s debut album — recorded solo and acoustic, mostly in her home studio — on which her voice barely registers above a whisper for the entire song; in fact, the song itself is conceived of as a whisper spoken between two lovers in bed, and if you listen closely enough, at just before the two-minute mark, you can even hear a siren wailing past her bedroom window for a second. “Flaming Red,” the following song in Griffin’s oeuvre, jolts us out of that drowsy reverie. You aren’t listening to that folk chick anymore. I’m not her, Patty seems to insist. Instead, you’re hearing an in-your-face tale of a “stupid girl” strutting around in red shoes, “bloody pumps” — a dead girl, we’re later told — who was “dressed like / She deserved everything that she got.”
It’s unclear how much of this abrupt shift in persona was due to the demands of Patty’s record company at the time, though judging from her first-person comments in concert, the temporary re-tooling of her image was equally of her own devising. It’s worth mentioning that Griffin did record a third album for A&M Records, Silver Bell, which was unreleased, sadly, because the label dropped her contract and went under soon thereafter. I have an advance promotional CD sampler from the year 2000 (mailed to me back when I was writing music reviews for Bay Windows) that includes the song “Silver Bell,” along with this printed announcement: “New album Silver Bell due out in September.” That never happened, of course, but it’s revealing that “Silver Bell” is just as much of a hard-rock track as “Flaming Red.” Clearly, the record company had a certain career trajectory in mind for Griffin.
(Little did A&M or Griffin herself foresee that Dave Matthews’ ATO Records label would pick her up and release her next several albums, all very much rooted in the mainstream folk vein, with plenty of room for sonic, but always acoustic, experimentation. Her first album not on ATO Records since that that time, Downtown Church, was released earlier this year; it’s a collection of contemporary re-workings of classic gospel songs, with a few original numbers.)
Regardless of these later instances of turnover in musical identity, the new “rock chick” who appeared on the song “Flaming Red” made little or no sense to some of Griffin’s listeners. I’ve talked to several friends who like her earlier and later work, but were nearly turned off of her music entirely by Flaming Red’s first three minutes: I think it’s just way too loud, they complained, or I never like to listen to hard rock music like that. But how personal taste affects whether or not you’ll buy someone’s new album is about commerce, not art. Flaming Red is art, and it’s artfully synergistic. Griffin’s resistance to being pigeonholed at every point on the album’s thirteen songs actually fits the record’s concepts and serious themes of personal change and evolution at every moment as well.
The second song on Flaming Red, “One Big Love,” was the record’s first single, and it couldn’t be more of a departure from the album’s title track. Accordingly, the song is about exactly what its title suggests, but playfully so. As with many radio pop songs, its narrator is hoping to cement that one big love during a seaside getaway on a summer day, but here she spends most of the time thinking about how she’s taking chances by spending that day away from everybody else she knows. Patty’s hook-laden guitar strumming on the song only serves to underscore how she doesn’t really want to be tied down to any one person, nor to being any one person.
It makes unexpected sense that Griffin then swerves into the dramatic monologue titled “Tony,” the first and most powerful of the album’s character-driven songs. The most striking aspect of the song is its gorgeous sheen and seemingly innocuous pop setting, all drum loops and synthesizers and bleeping electric guitars. The lyrics, which focus on the title character’s suicide, are movingly wistful at first, as a woman who’s looking back on her early years remembers long high school days of sitting behind a young gay man named Tony in class, bored out of her mind: “When I wasn’t too busy feeling lonely / I stared over his shoulder at a map of the world.” The next verse is worth quoting in its entirety because it shows how much the singer relates to Tony, and perhaps also offers Griffin’s reasons for writing this unusual pop song:
“I hated every day of high school
Funny I guess that you did too
It’s funny how I never knew
There I was sitting right behind you
They wrote it in the local rag
Death comes to the local fag
So I guess you finally stopped believing
That any hope would ever find you
I knew that story, I was sitting right behind you.”
I first heard Griffin perform “Tony” at Somerville Theater, just outside of Boston, during the year before Flaming Red was released. The concert was actually introduced by the same Tony who had inspired her to write the song. She performed it solo, with only her voice and her acoustic guitar. Just after the portion of the song that’s quoted above, Tony points a gun at himself during the chorus, and then there’s a long breakdown of drums and guitars on the album version of the song.
But in this solo live rendition, which was my introduction to the song, Griffin ripped a string right out of her guitar with a painful metallic screech, right at the same point in the song when Tony pulls the trigger. The ripped-out guitar string was left dangling from Griffin’s guitar as she played out the remainder of the song. The effect was precise, intense, and staggering. I’d never seen a musician do something like that on stage before, and I’ve never seen anything like it since. That moment remains one of my most indelible memories ever from a live concert. It’s the same moment when I was realized that the world would soon know Patty Griffin’s name.
Back when Griffin wrote “Tony” in the mid-’90s, one-third of teenage suicides were attributed to being harassed at school for reasons related to the student’s perceived sexual identity. Almost fifteen years later, that statistic has become less severe, thankfully, and I can only hope that Patty’s direct, heartbreaking song has helped to change that, even in a small way.
“Change,” track four on the album, continues with the theme of red-hot and sometimes devastating life alterations, this time in the context of a semi-abusive relationship. The metaphor for the man in the relationship is an angry, growling canine (“Dog comes growling up behind you / sinks his teeth in your leg”), a risky metaphor that would normally fall flat on its face as a cliché in any song. But the upbeat rock-inflected instrumentation and Griffin’s in-the-moment delivery save it from that fate: “And now there’s no name for you / Come to find out none of that shit was even true.” The only way to appreciate how successfully Griffin sings this line is to hear it for yourself.
The album’s most bittersweet song, “Goodbye,” again deals with the loss of a close friend. The track is pensive but not overwhelming, as Griffin walks a tightrope of familiar yet originally expressed emotions: “Won’t see you anymore / I guess that’s finally sinking in / ‘Cause you can’t make somebody see / With the simple words you say / All the beauty from within / Sometimes they just look away.” This kind of straightforward emotional candor, uncommon in the realm of pop music, keeps the song from feeling trite, and at the same time — with the help of some gauzy, atmospheric electric guitar work — keeps it from feeling too heavy. The next track, “Carry Me,” is similarly subdued and dreamy for the most part, with an abstract lyrical through-line that could equally describe being carried off to sleep or being flown away to war. It’s a compliment to her compositional skills to admit that Griffin’s lyrics don’t always need to make specific and immediate sense. As with poetry, her more subtle songs arrive at their own kind of aesthetic meaning through repeated listening.
“Christina” must be one of the most unique songs in the pop music lexicon, in that it’s a tribute to a public figure whom few people hear about, which is also one of the key ideas in the song itself. According to Griffin’s introductory explanation of the lyrics during live performances, the song pays sincere homage as it imagines the life of Christina Onassis, daughter of the shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, who was, of course, married to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis:
“A piece of the action, pieces of gold
Everyone’s paid well and does what they’re told
For the simple daughter of a simple man
And up in the air, they would write your name there
And love would fall to pieces in the rain
Who would know better than you?
A hundred love letters and none of them true.”
As she always has an innate ability to do, Griffin climbs inside the mind and life situations of the character whom she’s both creating and addressing. The result never seems hokey for a moment, but instead feels haunting and true, especially when, near the end of the song, against a sparkling backdrop of somber yet somehow also cheerful electronic beats, Griffin lets loose a disembodied cry that’s a sonic approximation of what her character must be feeling.
Along with the album’s title track, “Wiggley Fingers” makes for the other surprisingly hard-edged rock number included here, packed full of pulsating guitars and naughty-girl lyrics. The even bigger surprise is that it’s a rock song about, of all things, Catholicism (and why not?) — a tongue-in-cheek jab at the endless litanies of do’s and don’ts that are handed down to Catholic young people, including stipulations of the consequences of those actions: “Old John Paul is keeping a tab / In his big red folder / At night he is dreaming of hollow candle holders / As big as the weight of the world on his shoulders / Amen Amen.” On an album that obviously has plenty of darker moments, this is Griffin’s best chance to let her sense of humor shine through, though even when she’s cracking some harmless jokes at the expense of organized religion, we know that it’s still serious business.
“Blue Sky,” the track that’s probably my second favorite on the album (next to “Tony”), was also released to radio stations as a single, and it’s clear why. More propulsive and a bit less sugary than “One Big Love,” “Blue Sky” is the most wide-open, euphoric cut on the album. This perfect pop song found its ideal vehicle when I played it for my friend Alfred (who’s mentioned above) as we were driving in his car across an enormous bridge outside of Newport when I visited him in Rhode Island for Thanksgiving one year. Just as the opening guitar licks and drum lines throttled into place, we were driving up the bridge and straight into that same huge blue sky that the song describes and celebrates so well.
The next two songs, “Big Daddy” and “Go Now,” are both quasi-jazzy in different ways, slightly brooding and slightly cute at once. The additional guitarists who contributed to the album — Jay Joyce, Doug Lancio, and Daniel Tashian — deserve to share much of the credit on these two songs, as well as many of the others on the record.
But it’s the album’s mournful penultimate anthem, “Mary,” that’s earned Griffin perhaps the highest praise of any song in her catalogue, in part due to a beautiful vocal assist from Emmylou Harris, who’s long been a fan of Patty, and of this song in particular. The lyrics unfold as an incantatory prayer of praise to Griffin’s grandmother, and in them Griffin draws many imagistic comparisons to the Virgin Mary herself:
“You’re covered in roses
You’re covered in ashes
You’re covered in rain
You’re covered in babies
You’re covered in slashes
You’re covered in wilderness
You’re covered in stains . . .
Jesus said mother I couldn’t stay another day longer
He flies right by and leaves a kiss upon her face
While the angels were singing his praises in a blaze of glory
Mary stays behind and starts cleaning up the place.”
Griffin continues on to trace her grandmother’s personal sacrifices, her peaceful will to endure, and her serene yet vast omnipresence in Griffin’s life. This phenomenal and deeply felt song fully deserves the devoted following that it’s amassed over time.
The album’s tranquil closing track, the childlike piano ballad “Peter Pan,” takes the form of an imaginary letter, seemingly written by Wendy to Peter himself. It’s more of a denouement, culminating in some lovely orchestration, as well as an open, promising ending to the story: “Hey Peter Pan, I’m going home now / I’m all grown up, you’re on your own now / I’ll think of you all painted with the night / You sit and watch from somewhere / As one by one the lights go out.” In the span of fifty minutes, Griffin has covered many of the genres made available to her in our American musical repertoire, and by the close of the album, she’s made herself believably at home in every single one of them.
I’ve listened to the songs on Patty Griffin’s Flaming Red for over twelve years now, in so many different places and mindsets, and on so many different formats: on the radio, on CD, in stereo, with earphones, on my laptop, with my iPod on shuffle, and most fortunately, live in concert a number of times, at venues both tiny and massive. This album continues to reward me; these songs are all a part of me by now, as close to me as my own breath.