Patty Griffin: Living with Ghosts

Patty Griffin’s 1,000 Kisses was one of my favorite albums of 2002, and I couldn’t quite warm up to 2004’s Impossible Dream. So I’m no stranger to her music.

Living with Ghosts is one of those albums that seemed to be referred to in hushed reverence, so I thought I’d give it a shot. I wasn’t expecting a demo tape.

Had I done my research, I probably would have found out. Griffin recorded her debut album for A&M Records with producer Nile Rodgers. The label didn’t like it, and Griffin wasn’t comfortable with it either. So instead, she re-recorded the vocals on her demo and released it as her debut.

Living with Ghosts is not Michelle Shocked’s Texas Campfire Tapes, which was recorded on a Walkman at the Kerville Folk Festival almost 20 years ago. But the entire album is pretty much Griffin and her guitar.

Griffin’s introspective work lends itself nicely to a full band, and having been introduced to her work in that context, it took quite an adjustment for me to hear what’s in the music than what’s not.

That said, some songs almost call out to be fleshed out. Griffin’s passionate strumming at the end of "Poor Man’s House" more than hints at a big finish with a full band. I can almost hear a muted electric guitar on the opening lick of "Every Little Bit".

Still, the sparse instrumentation puts more focus Griffin and her words. The bittnerness of "You Never Get What You Want" gets telegraphed directly, and the harrowing narrative of "Sweet Lorraine" compels a listener to pay attention.

Griffin’s powerful wail sometimes threatens to overpower these songs, but she also knows when to pull back.

I can see how fans love Living with Ghosts. Griffin knows how to spin a yarn, and she’s got the voice to back it up. At the same time, the album does feel like the glorified demo tape that it is.

In this case, history works against me. 1,000 Kisses demonstrates just how Living with Ghosts could have been done. I would probably have a much different opinion if I heard these albums in order.