As one would expect, the best stories make the best songs. There’s the lovely “Elvis Presley Calls His Mother After the Ed Sullivan Show”, where the King’s legendary love for his Mama shows itself in all its sweetness.
Sid Griffin helped pioneer the contemporary revival of Americana music as one of the founding members of the Long Ryders some 30 years ago. The band’s hard driving enthusiasm, indie spirit, and constant touring made them legends within the burgeoning alt country movement. Griffin has gone on and continued to make music with the Coal Porters and as a solo act. He has also articles, album liner notes, and books on Gram Parsons and Bob Dylan. Griffin’s new record, The Trick Is to Breathe follows in the same tradition, but Griffin is also eccentric and somewhat screwball in his approach. The songwriting and singing is purposely sloppy; informal and conversational more than musical as if he’d rather tell you a story than sing one.
That strategy works. The folksy rhetoric of just being a plain observer adds drama as the songs unfold. On the clunky but catchy, “Ode to Bobbie Gentry”, sung over a loose instrumental version of the melody to “Ode to Billie Joe” with new lyrics about Gentry’s career, Griffin tells the tale with the moral “It seems like no one ever comes to no good in the show biz world” as if he’s reading from the Country Music bible. The words are simple but carry weight.
As one would expect, the best stories make the best songs. There’s the lovely “Elvis Presley Calls His Mother After the Ed Sullivan Show”, where the King’s legendary love for his Mama shows itself in all its sweetness. There’s also the laconic spoken word beat poem “Punk Rock Club” where Griffin wonders why the singer is so angry, the guitar so distorted, and such in a calm voice. The less interesting narratives, the “We’ve Run of Road” and the cover of the Youngbloods’ sixties feel-good soft rocker “Get Together”), make the worst songs. Yeah, I know. As Nick Lowe / Elvis Costello declared “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace Love and Understanding”—but no one should ever sing “Get Together” again. It is a cheesy song made worse over time for its simplistic sentiments sung over syrupy instrumentation. Why not buy the whole world a coke instead?
But I digress. Blame it Griffin, whose easygoing charm makes one confuse listening to the record with talking to the man. His voice stays on key, but he knows better than to stretch and reach for notes. His limited range reinforces the “aw shucks” persona. That also gives the record an intimate feel. He may not be telling personal stories about himself, but there is an element of confession conveyed. The songs’ narrators remain mysterious even as they reveal themselves. We don’t know the names of the boy and girl at the “Circle Bar”. “Everywhere” could literally be anywhere and is meant to be that way, and so on.
The casual ambiance can also lend a corniness to the proceeding. Like Elvis, we might all love our mother but we don’t want to hear songs about motherly love (unless they are about Elvis!—any story about Elvis is worth hearing). Griffin lives in Europe these days and he expresses too much nostalgia for a mythic America that never was except in poetry and song. He’s best when just telling it straight.