Like Fine Wine 

Patty Griffin ages well on Impossible Dream

Remember the first time you heard Van Morrison's Astral Weeks? Each song bled into the next so that you were entranced and lost in the overall feel of the record. And remember the first time you heard the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band? Each song stood as its own one-act play, so strongly voiced that you remembered each song by heart after just one listen.

Impossible Dream, the newest release from Patty Griffin, successfully splits the difference, which ebbs and flows without losing the particularity of each song. If this record is a meal, then it's a sumptuous spread, with memorable courses that vary and complement each other.

Griffin has constructed a record with real continuity, but she's allowed herself flexibility so that each individual song is highly distinct. Thanks to insistently careful production, the record blends intelligent lyrics and a great group of musicians. Each folky ballad makes way for belting gospel vocals you aren't expecting. Each train beat shuffles into a slow violin.

Born in small-town Maine, Griffin was weaned as a singer/songwriter on the Boston rock scene, and was sold to the public as a folk singer ... but there's more than a little honest twang in her voice on Impossible Dream, and more than a little Aretha Franklin, too. In the past, and at her oversweet folky worst, Griffin has occasionally floundered into the voice of a new-millennium Judy Collins. But Dream suffers from none of that saccharine.

Traditional folk is almost the blank slate of contemporary music as it's stripped down and acoustic. So it makes sense that Griffin is able to remain her real folk self while layering on other styles and sounds. It works for her, without feeling gimmicky, because as we listen, we hear that she truly wants to be a country girl, a gospel singer, an angry rocker. Those voices are in her, in her lyrics, as well as the drum beat or backing vocals. The record takes the bones of good, folk-smart lyrics, strong vocals, and the desire to communicate a message or a story - and stirs in an even mixture of art and anger, bowed-bass and tuba, scratchy, old home recordings, and Emmylou Harris.

Listening to Impossible Dream and looking back at Griffin's discography, she was lucky to meet with failure in her career, because no one who ever really "made it" could produce a record with this slow maturity. In 2000, she was getting attention from the likes of Dave Letterman and Conan O'Brien, and her songs were being recorded by the Dixie Chicks and Bette Midler, but then the bottom line commanded that Griffin be dropped by her label, Interscope. If that had never happened and Griffin had gone gold, it's likely she would have manufactured some even-handed folk records for a particular demographic and then maybe cut a record with some other folkies so they could do a group tour once their solo projects slipped. Instead, she had to pick up the pieces of her career, look to her inspirations and her insides, and start over.

Maybe each lesson, each hard knock, turned into a song. In the first four songs on the record, Griffin offers us what could have been the best four songs from four different albums. "Love Throw a Line" is a deep Texas shuffle, laden with somber images, lions, blood and tidal waves. What follows in "Cold as It Gets" is an even darker world, but juxtaposed with lighter, more plaintive vocals, a persona poem a la Lucy Kaplansky. And then in "Kite Song," a spare piano and bowed bass remind us more of Tori Amos than Texas. By song four, we're not even trying to guess what to expect, and we're on the right track, because "Standing" is straight-up gospel, complete with organs. ... We won't spoil the rest.


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