There’s a whole lot of singing that’s never gonna be heard, disappearing every day without so much as a word somehow.
—“Top of the World”
Irony can be rather cruel. Within the lyrical context of “Top of the World”, the masterful singer-songwriter Patty Jean Griffin probably never expected to write a chorus that would reflect the fate of the album it would first be featured on. Aching with introspective fragility, the song conveys the regrets of a man who died and is looking down from above, contemplating the errors of his life. It was made famous by the Dixie Chicks and eventually ended up on Griffin’s album Impossible Dream, but the powerful original feels like the definitive version, containing a ghostly fragment of “J’irai la voir un jour”, a lullaby her grandmother used to sing to her as a child. Thirteen years later, Patty’s long “lost” record Silver Bell has been released and the earliest incarnation of “Top of the World” can now be heard in all its emotionally resonant glory. Silver Bell fills in the blanks between the overproduced, but incendiary Flaming Red and the raw beauty of 1000 Kisses.
What once had vanished as if it had never been recorded, now has been given life again. More than a decade later, after the record was egregiously discarded during the wake of a merger between A&M Records and Universal, Griffin’s masterpiece will finally receive the widespread critical acclaim it so rightfully deserved in 2000. If I’m being presumptuous, it’s only because an album of this caliber rarely comes along. For whatever reason Silver Bell is finally being released, it will only reinforce the reality that Griffin is a talent to be reckoned with, something her fans have known ever since her debut Living With Ghosts. She’s clearly moved on from the debacle, established herself, won a Grammy and become a celebrated artist, but its interesting to think what fate would have befallen Silver Bell if it had been given a chance the first time around.
According to Griffin, the record has been stripped of the glossy production value that partially marred the sound quality of the original. Paying respect to all the engineering, effort and countless hours spent recording these songs in Daniel Lanois’ Kingsway Studio all those years ago, she decided that if it were to be released, it had to be done right. Enlisting the talents of celebrated producer, musician and engineer Glyn Johns of the Who and Eagles fame, I can only presume that this is how she originally envisioned her album should sound. The unparalleled musicianship, gorgeous song craft and honest performances throughout, speak for themselves though.
Deft, candid lyricism has always been a forte of Griffin and this album is no different than any of the others she’s released. The ominous, darkly scathing “Little God” opens the set with a slight Middle Eastern air about it. Slithering drums are paired with the muscle of angry electric guitars, and the divine being of the title becomes less celestial as the song unfolds. This is not the irate, tongue-in-cheek “God” of Tori Amos’ Under the Pink or even that of XTC’s deity-denouncing classic “Dear God” from their mid-‘80s album Skylarking. This is an altogether more earthbound affair. “Smoke is in the air, from your little cigarette. You tell me to throw the fight, go and place your little bet. Shake, little god. Shake your little fists. All the strippers think you’re odd, but you leave the biggest tips.” It’s a far cry from the coffeehouse folk of her debut.
As stylistically varied as the best of her records, Griffin has always been an artistic chameleon who has a knack for pulling off any genre with aplomb, and Silver Bell revels in displaying this versatility. There’s the alternative rock of “Boston”, “Sorry and Sad”, “Driving” and the raucous title track, that recalls the punkish spirit of “Flaming Red” off her previous record. She pinballs between the down home country vibe of “Truth #2” and “So Long”, piano ballads like “Mother of God” and the smoky, bluesy “Perfect White Girls”. One would think that an album this diverse would collapse under the potpourri of styles, but it’s surprisingly cohesive. The record is so brilliant, it feels like a crime that it’s taken this long to be released.
Two of the original album’s most memorable tracks, “Making Pies” and closing song “Standing” haven’t remained in the updated set, as they were relocated to other recordings. Their replacements “Fragile” and “So Long” are equally as arresting, although I can imagine their inclusion slightly changes the ambience of the original effort. The former pulses along, resonating on themes of regret and redemption. The production utilizes some of the electronic textural qualities of the record’s predecessor, fading eventually into the deep and the waves of its lyrics. The latter, “So Long” with its plucking banjo, sounds like it was recorded on a Southern porch in one take, on a hot summer’s day. Written from the perspective of someone at the end of their life, the lyrics reflect on all that has come before, the pain of living and the beautiful memories collected. The band plays on as the flame flickers out.
The lyrics of the gorgeous “What You Are” could as easily define a conversation between Griffin and a friend, as well as a rather heartfelt love letter to herself and her career at that point in time. “I used to think the sidewalk was the way, always waiting for my lucky day. Over and over every patch of gray, one day inside me I was lucky anyway. What do you wish you were? Do you wish you were the light of every star? Nobody knows but, maybe thats just what you are.” It’s apparent through every live performance I’ve witnessed of hers that Griffin has made peace with the path fate dealt her at the turn of the last century.
The beauty of Griffin’s talents survived the injustice she received after delivering Silver Bell to the studio heads at A&M records. Since then she’s released five successful studio albums, two remarkable live recordings and gained the respect of her musical peers and audiences alike. One listen and it’s apparent that this is the album that should have catapulted her into the mainstream, yet it’s possible she never wanted that kind of fame to begin with. Either way, Silver Bell has finally been given the respect it deserved over a decade ago and it sounds as relevant, fresh, vital and modern as if it were recorded this year. It’s a classic in the making.
// Notes from the Road
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