The Music Club

Why Patty Griffin Makes Me Cry
New albums dissected over email.
Dec. 17 2007 7:35 AM

The Music Club

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Patty Griffin. Click image to expand.
Patty Griffin

Who thought we'd start out our chat about the Year of Arcade Fire Kanye In Rainbows"No One" pondering a band that I once thought good for nothing but some killer air keyboard? But Journey is so relevant now. Thanks to my pals at the fresh blog Oh! Industry, I was already embroiled in the latest Journey journey, a saga that captures so much about pop music in 2007.

The short version: While looking for the band's sixth lead singer (Relevant Element 1: ancient rockers soldiering on) on YouTube (RE 2: that damn Web), Journey guitarist Neal Schon came across Arnel Pineda, singer for the Quezon City, Philippines-based band the Zoo (RE 3: Filipino cover bands, a major export, according to this excellent 2005 article). Pineda's spot-on Steve Perry high notes suited Schon, and he's been hired, but not after some vehement protest from American Journey fans (RE 4 and 5: racism in rock, American nationalism).

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More than errors in taste—something that I've always made, since I bought a Barry Manilow cassette at age 11—what concerns me as a critic now is keeping track of a pop world packed with such crazy stories. Every year now, time and space collapse further. Categories that once made my job orderly no longer suffice.

Is Kala a world-music album? Or does M.I.A. demolish that very term with her globe-trotting hard drive? Is Amy Winehouse totally retro, or is a postmodern self-awareness simmering beneath her beehive? (I side with professor Oliver Wang on that one.) When Cyndi Lauper pops up for a week as the iTunes top seller—and not because the highest-rated premium cable show features her song—is she suddenly relevant again, or has a weird wave of nostalgia simply overtaken us?

In the midst of all this time and space travel, I find it hard to focus. Thus, like many critics, I've written one too many Internet-besotted meta-pieces while losing focus of the real-time listening experience. On workdays I often keep a window open to Critical Metrics, my favorite snobby Top 40 station, and try to absorb what's new. But that doesn't mean I don't miss stuff. I miss more and more stuff every day.

As a daily scribe, I feel particularly pulled by the rapids of information flow. When can I take the time to sit down with music unconnected to the celebrity machine that I'm required to confront as a newspaper critic? And when I do, must I turn to the cocktail party favorites of the blogger elite?

Consider Grinderman, Nick Cave's latest project. I really dig it. The band's springtime debut has nothing beyond exactly what you'd expect: no innovative beats, no clever backstory, no novel hybridizations or next-step sounds. It's just a very solid, funny, sweaty rock record from some guys who've made them in the past, but found their footing again. Not a story. Plus, Cave is older than Miley Cyrus' dad.

I hate making Top 10s, and only after the fact did I realize that I overlooked Grinderman in mine. Such oversights happen when a critic has 10,000 CDs gazing longingly at her in the postal bins, saying, "Pick me! Choose me! Love me!" Half the time I don't even crack the bins; I go directly to Rhapsody or eMusic and channel surf like a stoned kid with a bowl of Cheetos and a soft couch.

Thank goodness for the car. There, I can listen to a whole album without distractions—except for the crazy people on Highway 110 who want to kill me with their Priuses. I walk, too, around the Los Angeles canyons, with a little aging Discman in my plastic backpack. That's how I got to know several favorite albums this year—Brad Paisley's excellent hoot; Joni Mitchell's shimmering, irascible comeback; LCD Soundsystem's master stroke.

One favorite walk was with Radiohead's In Rainbows, freshly downloaded for nada (sorry, guys, your site wouldn't process my American Express card). The public buildup had been so great that this private moment felt like coming downstairs to see what Santa had brought on Christmas. And this trike was really shiny! Radiohead put together a great playlist of hooky (for them), itchy songs that lived up to the surrounding frenzy. Thom Yorke singing about sex? Now that's revolutionary.

Another favorite listen this year came from unrevolutionary country gal Patty Griffin, who released the quiet genre-buster Children Running Through in February. Griffin's not a Young Turk, like Miranda Lambert (whom I like, too), nor a firebrand, like fellow redhead Neko Case. She's just a really good songwriter whose own albums get stuck in the "Americana" category that nobody thinks is sexy anymore. (Oops, I see a theme emerging: middle-aged critic defends middle-aged artists who don't make the "hottie" grade. Sorry to be solipsistic. I promise to write about Lil Wayne's bodacious rhymes in my next post!)

I'm a seasoned critic, skilled in tracing influences, trained to dig crafty sonic amalgamations and virtuoso turns. But when I listen to Griffin's song "Burgundy Shoes," I cry. I mean uncontrollably—the minute the music-box piano kicks in and she starts the simple verses.

In the song, Griffin finds the voice of a little girl riding the bus with her mother on a potentially scary, maybe wonderful journey to Maine. Her mom hums a Beatles tune, and the girl reflects on how great it is to be in the sun, without her big boots on, next to the most pretty lady in the world. I have a daughter, and in the four years that I've been immersed in the sentimental crap surrounding motherhood, I've never heard such a pure evocation of the volatile, relentless love mothers and daughters share.

When I hear it, I think of my 83-year-old mom, who had to enter an assisted-living facility this year but still wears coral lipstick to supper and wants to go to Wisconsin to visit her sister. I think of my 4-year-old girl, who tells me that I'm not very nice and that I'm beautiful in the same breath.

I think of my daughter's birthmom, who misses her spitting-image child fiercely as she builds her own young life. And my sister-in-law, with three girls, trying to not interfere when the oldest gets rejected by her best friend and the middle one wants to wear the craziest outfit ever to her first day of kindergarten. And I can't help it. I'm lost in the memory Griffin constructed, as it makes a bridge into my own life. I'm gone.

I can't always find a way to write publicly about these moments now, or even to make room for them in my nonexistent "down time." But aren't such private connections still a key part of loving music, even as everything gets harder, better, faster, stronger? I'd like to know what your private loves were this year. And now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go get a tissue.

Ann Powers is a critic at NPR Music. She is the former Los Angeles Times' chief pop critic and the author of Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America.