American Kid is Patty Griffin's first album of primarily original material since 2007's Children Running Through. It's her most stripped-down recording since her debut, Living with Ghosts. Acoustic guitars of all stripes, mandolins, earthy drums, percussion, bass, and occasional piano and organ accompany her instantly recognizable voice. Co-produced by the artist and Craig Ross, she is joined by longtime guitarist Doug Lancio, as well as Cody and Luther Dickinson. Robert Plant appears on three songs, including the single "Ohio." The set was recorded in Memphis and Brooklyn. Griffin wrote most of these songs after learning of her father's impending death. They aren't so much about his actual life, but her making sense of the coming absence of his physical presence in hers, what she knew of him and his times. These songs are mostly acoustic; one can hear traces of early blues, various American folk styles, gospel, and vintage country music in her brand of Americana. There isn't anything extra anywhere in the mix. The space in the high lonesome "Go Wherever You Wanna Go," with Luther's National Steel guitar playing slide in counterpart to Griffin's earthy vocal, is almost spooky. The combined supplication and exhortation in the haunted "Don't Let Me Die in Florida" carries traces of prewar and Memphis blues. The duet between Griffin and Plant on "Ohio," is a shimmering, open-tuned droning float, it's lyric binds spiritual and physical love; it would not have been out of place on a Band of Joy record. The feeling of home and hearth saturates her excellent reading of Lefty Frizzell's "Mom & Dad's Waltz," while the musical sensation -- if not the form -- of the folk-blues courses through the disquieting "Faithful Son," with a haunting backing vocal by Plant. "Irish Boy" evokes an early 20th century parlor song; Griffin's only accompaniment is her piano. "Get Ready Marie" is a barroom waltz, complete with a male backing chorus and made loopy by an off-kilter Hammond B-3. The set closer, "Gonna Miss You When You're Gone," is Griffin speaking directly to her father, addressing the deep mark he made upon her life, even as he's passing through it. It's part Lonnie Johnson and Lil Green swing blues, and part Peggy Lee pop. It's slow burning, tender, and bittersweet, a three a.m. confession in an empty room, sung from one spirit to another. While the theme of mortality runs deep through American Kid, so does the celebration of life. Roughshod and unpredictable songs engage it in the present as well as the past, through courage, fear, love, memory, and the grainy, knotty, often invisible ties that bind. With its immediacy, economy, cagey strength, and vulnerability, Griffin delivers these 12 songs not as gifts or statements, but as her own evidence of what is, what was, and what yet may come.
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