On her first album, 1996′s Living With Ghosts, singer-songwriter Patty Griffin trod the trad-folk route, stripping her songs to the bone with only voice and acoustic guitar. It proved as satisfying a strategy as it was gutsy, setting in bold relief Griffin’s intimate vignettes of love and loss, and, more importantly, her striking vocals — a natural blend of down-home colloquialism (think Bonnie Raitt) and uptown insouciance (Rickie Lee Jones).
On Flaming Red, Griffin revises her modus operandi, and it’s apparent from the opening seconds of the title track. In fact, “Flaming Red” is a rockabilly rave-up so removed from the easygoing immediacy of Living With Ghosts that it’s impossible to read it as anything other than a radical statement of newfound purpose.
Trouble is, Griffin doesn’t have the nerve to go whole-hog into cowpunk abandon; “Flaming Red” is a two-minute anomaly. What’s worse, she’s not really sure where she wants to go. “Goodbye” is a leisurely stroll down a country road; “Christina” is a soft-rock valentine; “Wiggley Fingers” is an acid-funk cybergroove; “Go Now” is a loungey torch song; “Peter Pan” is an impressionistic piano daydream. “Tony”, the album’s biggest clunker, sets Griffin’s uncharacteristically mawkish lyrics (a sad song about a fat boy) against low-key verses and guitar-onslaught choruses. Producer Jay Joyce doesn’t help matters, offering neither focus nor feeling, only high-tech drum loops and bombastic burnish. It’s all very faddish, and all very phony.
A couple years ago, Griffin showed more promise than most of her up-and-coming singer-songwriter counterparts. Only her next album will tell if Flaming Red was an out-and-out breach of that promise, or just a muddle-headed expression of it.