A big part of an artist’s life is dealing with rejection — I don’t care who they are. The work is all they think about to the point that, for at least a few weeks, it becomes who they are, and then someone in hair gel or, even worse, a Dodgers or Yankees cap, tells them it’s not good enough.
But there are snubs and then there are outright injustices. Patty Griffin’s intended third album — and first as an Austin resident — “Silver Bell” is one of the best LPs made in 2000, easily up there with “Kid A” by Radiohead and that good P.J. Harvey record. But Griffin’s label, whose personnel had changed dramatically after A&M was swallowed by Vivendi/Universal, sent it back like undercooked chicken. “Write 10 more songs and then come see us again,” they said, and Griffin put her Victorian ankle boot down. Release “Silver Bell” as is or release me from my contract, she responded.
“The thing that no one would say, but I bet they were all thinking it, was that I’m 38 years old,” Griffin told the Statesman in 2002. “It’s a kids’ game now, and the feeling is that if I hadn’t made it by now, I wasn’t going to make it.”
Griffin’s manager, Ken Levitan, met with new label honcho Jimmy Iovine and came out feeling that it would be best for his client if she was somewhere else. OK, said Universal, who gave Griffin the chance to buy the masters for “Silver Bell” and shop it around, but she chose to start from scratch on a new album.
Patty Griffin has some complicity in why “Silver Bell” didn’t come out 13 years earlier. The album — finally released earlier this month — had not been an easy birth; in 2002 she said it “had gotten to be a monstrosity,” with its experimental textures and overdubs. “We re-recorded ‘Making Pies’ five times.”
The last full album recorded at Daniel Lanois’ famous Kingsway studio in New Orleans, “Silver Bell” had gotten deep inside her head, especially when it was tossed off the release schedule, so Griffin’s next project, “1000 Kisses,” had an opposite approach. Where “Silver Bell” had been 15 tracks all over the musical spectrum — from the indie rock of “Boston” and Middle Eastern swirl of “Little God” to the country strummer “So Long” and the drippy piano ballad “Mother of God” — the followup contained just nine songs, with the backing tracks stripped to a warm glow. The only thing “1000 Kisses” would have in common was “Making Pies,” which Griffin recorded for a sixth time.
Although Griffin’s second album “Flaming Red,” had sold only 120,000 copies, half as much as her 1996 debut “Living With Ghosts,” Griffin’s bold sense of freedom during the turbulence of “Silver Bell” was no doubt bolstered by the financial windfall of having the Dixie Chicks record “Let Him Fly” on the 10-million-selling “Fly” in 1999. The Chicks wanted more Griffin material and put holds on “Truth #2” and “Top of the World” from what became known as the “Silver Bell Sessions” and recorded them on 2002’s multi-platinum “Home.” The “lost” Patty album was eventually leaked on the Internet and shared on fan sites.
But before “Silver Bell” was finally officially released, it was mixed anew by Glyn Johns (The Who, Eagles, Rolling Stones) of the legendary golden ears. From comments posted at the end of the unanimous raves for “Silver Bell,” those who’ve heard the bootleg say the new mixes are less cluttered, less raw. The Patty G of Y2K still had the crust of rage left over from her days as a Pizzeria Uno waitress. But the older you get, the more you believe in the essence.
I started listening to “Silver Bell” on the Sunday the ACL Fest was rained out because my Internet was down and it was the only CD I had in the trailer I was staying in. And I’ve been playing it daily ever since. It’s Griffin’s grand tour, showing the listener not only the living room and bedroom (the slinky “Sooner or Later” is Patty at her sexiest), but the grrl cave in the basement where the title track bounces off the mattresses on the wall like Patty and the Stooges.
“Silver Bell” gives the listener more than any other Patty Griffin record, which may have been too much when she was trying to establish herself in 2000 but seems just right after the places she’s taken them with “Impossible Dream” (which contained three “Silver” “rejects”) in 2004, “Children Running Through” in 2007 and this year’s “American Kid.” Everything she’s become known for, such as intuitive songwriting that makes it sound easy and a voice that isn’t just pure and athletic but full of knowledge, was there with “Silver Bell.” But there was also an adventurous streak, as on “Perfect White Girls,” with its fritzy rhythms, and “Sorry and Sad,” with its grungelike heaves and crumbles.
My favorite song on the new old record besides the title track (which I play in the car on full blast when the gridlock finally clears), is a darker ode called “One More Girl,” about a “chick singer” stuffed in tight jeans. The voice is weary at the start: “Do you ever take the time to think about who I might be?” But it builds strength in its determination to be more. Take your hand off her knee. Because Griffin can belt out a tune like punk rock Streisand, there’s as much force in her restraint.
Being released just five months after “American Kid” doesn’t diminish the power of “Silver Bell.” Or undercut the equally brilliant “Kid.” Eleven years earlier, when I sat with Griffin on the stylish, uncomfortable furniture of her Hyde Park duplex, she said her impossible dream was to one day be up there with her hero Bruce Springsteen. I’d say that, in 2013, she’s arrived.
“That whole ordeal with Universal seemed frustrating at the time, but looking back I’m glad it all happened,” Griffin said in 2002. “I wouldn’t be where I am today. That’s the lesson I learned from all that — in the end you get what you need.”
And at age 38 she was too young to know another truth which is now obvious. Life isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon. And time is on the side of the righteous.
White Denim — “Corsicana Lemonade”
Out today, without all that drama, is “Corsicana Lemonade,” the fifth studio album from prolific Austin quartet White Denim. Building on the psychedelic garage pop of 2011’s “D,” the new album recognizes only one boundary — the walls of the cranium. This could either be the most amazing band in Austin today or the purveyors of pretentious claptrap. Heck if I know.
Ah, but there’s always the critical crutch: AKA the comparisons. The Minutemen, Stevie Wonder, Tommy James and the Shondells, Cream, Allman Brothers, String Cheese Incident, Beach Boys, Lydia Pense and Cold Blood, Redd Kross, White Denim. They’re every record you have on vinyl and a brand new sound.
This band is too slippery for me to get ahold of. They’re all amazing players, especially guitarist/singer James Petralli, who channels Jerry Garcia, Brian May and “Bat Out of Hell” at the same time. Songs such as “Distant Relative” and the title track are so all over the place that they refuse to be judged. Instrumental parts are pieces of a quilt. Heck if I know if the whole thing is any good, but I dig this square over here and this one over there.
That’s the beauty of “Corsicana Lemonade”: You just let it play and it does what it does. It’s music of the mind. Just in there, in there, in there, and now it’s out.