Tape (Thirty Tigers)
The Resurrection Of Rust (EMI)
SO, PATTY GRIFFIN OUTTAKES AND PRE-COSTELLO ELVIS COSTELLO? You in?
Casual fans don’t buy box sets and third or fourth re-issues of records, even if, or maybe because, they’re touted as offering the “lost” tracks from the sessions that didn’t make the cut originally, the demo versions of songs that were later done “properly”, live versions of those songs, and maybe creative doodling at home or in the studio as your favourite musician faffs about working through ideas that may or may not survive.
They don’t buy them for very good reasons. They’ve got the songs already; they may have the albums in a couple of versions (original vinyl or original CD bought as a teen/youngster and then a good quality one they buy later to replace that original) and that seems enough; songs that didn’t make the cut usually sounds like songs that shouldn’t have made the cut; demo versions are rawer, unformed, not like the song they fell for and want to hear, or sound rougher coming through their speakers than anything else they might play; and they have, well, actual lives and more sensible uses for money.
Nutjob fans on the other hand hoover that shit up. Eagerly. (I should know: I am one.)Three or four iterations of a song being put together over time with changing lyrics, different melodies, alternate rhythms and tempos, or the as yet unfinished but already killer ones? Gimme. Those tunes written as a 17-year-old that sound like all the influences that artist was ingesting or the songs written as a 50-year-old that bring rawness and frankness? Hit me. The song that might have been a cracking album cut but didn’t fit the mood, or sounded a little too close to something else, was track 15 on a 14-track album or was recorded by someone else instead in a different way? Ooooh yeah baby.
Which is sort of where we find ourselves with Patty Griffin and Elvis Costello (who is half of Rusty along with Liverpool teen friend/collaborator, Allan Mayes), two of the great modern songwriters setting up in solid nutjob fan-pleasing territory. Who said the pandemic had nothing to recommend it?
That said, these two albums are not in operating in the same field, bar both being done and dusted in under half an hour. Griffin’s is an as-is set, the ten previously unreleased songs, all originals, presented as they were at last hearing for her: some rough and reedy from a basic recording, not far into their lives as new songs; some given fuller treatment or even studio recordings; some maybe on their way to something else one day. Think of it as a whole lot of potential futures.
For Costello, the six tracks - two originals alongside a couple of Nick Lowe songs (from the catalogue of British pub rockers, Brinsley Schwartz), one by little known American soul/country songwriter (and Nick Lowe influence) Jim Ford, and a pairing of two Neil Young numbers - are what he, then still known as Declan McManus, and Mayes were playing in 1972 as a two-piece called Rusty, enamoured of American roots-rock and soul.
But now they’ve recorded them not just with their current voices but the backing of Costello’s regular band, The Imposters, with the addition of Brinsley Schwartz/Rumour keyboardist, Bob Andrews, for one song, and the production of recent Costello collaborator, Sebastian Krys. Think of it as an alternative past already lived through.
A lighter-toned package than Griffin’s, The Resurrection Of Rust bustles along from the start, Lowe’s Surrender To The Rhythm packing some jaunty swing with Andrews’ organ the pied piper and Costello and Mayes appropriately more good time than perfect, while Ford’s I’m Ahead If I Can Quit While I’m Behind a Liverpool cantina feel for Mayes’ lived-in country voice and Costello’s higher, soul man answering backing vocals.
Ahead of the Neil Young songs – Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere mashed with Dance Dance Dance in a muscular country rock form that might have made a good “we love the songs you love” end of set in a Rusty show – the first of the McManus originals, Warm House (And An Hour Of Joy) wears its Young influence casually, more charming than compelling and undoubtedly helped by the fuller bodied sound of the Imposters under those harmonies. The way they’ve arranged Lowe’s Don’t Lose Your Grip On Love also takes on a Young feel in its otherwise familiar Costello soulful country mode.
There’s none of that in the somewhat theatrical Mayes/McManus song, Maureen & Sam, which is more ambitious if less formed, oddly enough sounding more European (as in Brel, or maybe his British/American acolytes of the late ‘60s) than American (as in David Ackles, or maybe a downtown New York folkie) the longer it goes on. It’s unlikely a 1972 version of the song would have sounded anything like this, but the speculation is part of the fun of it, and this mini-album.
A crossover point from Costello to Griffin might be in her Don’t Mind, where she is joined by then-paramour, Robert Plant. It is the closest to a full studio deal in this set, the blues slinkiness in the rhythm, the counterpoint of guitar and organ, the sultry desire of their voices balanced by a sly smile, all feeling like a full bar and a half-emptied glass. And there’s Little Yellow House, an early evening country stroll, here played by a small band trying not to blow the foam off your beer while she leans forward on her stool, holding the microphone lightly.
But mostly Tapes finds Griffin alone, either with guitar or piano (or in the case of the experimental instrumental, Octaves, barely hum and tendrils), and captured on rudimentary recordings that in something that One Day We Could has the intimacy and frailty of a first pass sung knee to knee. Sonic fidelity is not your friend here, if that matters to you, but then neither is any extravagance in wordiness or length, with a couple of songs not making two minutes and nothing exceeding four minutes.
Instead, we find songs baring their essence, like the skipping, quietly urgent Stripped Of Light, which feels like the germ of a song The Chicks (who, as The Dixie Chicks, introduced Griffin to many people via songs like Top Of The World) might revel in, balancing its multiple emotional tones. Or Kiss Of A Man, whose echoey space lays open a more subtle, more nuanced certainly, version of the sensuality that we got in Don’t Mind, and Get Lucky, where Griffin’s fondness for the blues winds its way through and her voice shows exactly the cracks it wants to.
The core of the record however – and this will be no surprise to anyone who has ever owned a Patty Griffin album and knows her to be a master of the form – are the ballads, which even in full band mode would practically demand to be offered as hauntingly spare gifts.
Forever Shall Be travels through its three minutes and 13 seconds like slowly accumulating clouds of growing sadness: it does its work in retrospect. Sundown is both elegant and piercing, the tenderness slightly barbed but its mark is immediate. And Night is one of those crushed and crushing Griffin songs where the particulars of the lyrics and the controlled vulnerability of the voice render the presence of anything other than the piano she has here superfluous.
Maybe we will get these songs in a fuller production, or on someone else’s record, one day. Maybe casual fans will succumb then. But you know, I don’t think you need to be a nutjob fan to take them in, and take them home, now.