CD Review of Children Running Through by Patty Griffin

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Children Running Through
starstarstarstarno star Label: ATO
Released: 2007
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She’s been covered by artists as disparate as the Dixie Chicks and Jessica Simpson, and has had her praises sung by journalists across the rock-crit spectrum since the release of her first album, but Patty Griffin’s recording career has been pockmarked by low sales and label indifference. It’s a state of affairs that seems to be improving – Children Running Through’s #34 debut was her highest yet – but still, with this kind of talent, it’s hard to understand how she’s managed to avoid a massive commercial breakthrough.

On the other hand, great songs are their own reward, both for the writer and the audience, and Children Running Through – Griffin’s fifth studio album and the third act in a career-reclaiming trilogy – is full of great songs. This will come as no surprise to longtime fans, of course; what’s interesting is the particular ways in which they’re great.

Generally speaking, Griffin’s last few albums have been solemn affairs; she’s never been a particularly ebullient songwriter, of course, but even by her own standards, she’s been under a pretty heavy cloud. Fans who have been hoping for a return to the louder dynamics of 1998’s Flaming Red won’t be entirely satisfied with this set of songs, but sonically, it encapsulates her strengths more completely than any of Griffin’s other releases.

The production here – handled by Griffin with Mike McCarthy – is key. Not only have they assembled a crack team of players, including Glenn Worf, Ian McLagan, and Emmylou Harris, but the arrangements run the gamut from predictable (guitars ‘n vocals) to pleasantly unexpected (horns and strings). Given that this batch of songs is arguably Griffin’s most emotionally varied, this is entirely appropriate.

What’s perhaps most exciting about Children Running Through is the ways in which it finds Griffin maturing as a songwriter. For an artist who seemed to burst out of her debut fully formed, she’s already traveled an admirable distance, and with this album, she’s arrived at what seems like a particularly fertile junction. The elegiac ballads are still what will pull listeners’ heartstrings tightest, but it’s elsewhere – swaggering around a brassy pocket in “Stay on the Ride,” rattling breathlessly down the defiantly optimistic “No Bad News,” soaring high on the power of a single repeated word on “Burgundy Shoes” – that the album really leaves its mark.

There are no bad songs here, no false moments. In many ways, it’s the album Griffin has been building toward since releasing Living with Ghosts 11 years ago, but it feels less like a hard-won artistic peak than a relaxed, confident statement from a performer at the top of her game. Patty Griffin may not be one of the most talented songwriters of her generation – but listening to Children Running Through, it’s hard to believe she’s anything but.

~Jeff Giles