Beginning with his early ’80s work as frontman for the Long Ryders and through his more recent output via the London-based Coal Porters (plus a writing credit for his bio of Gram Parsons), Sid Griffin has been channeling the roots of American music for quite some time now. But Little Victories is the first time he’s stuck his name on the front of an album.
While minimally backed by a group of musicians who can all be found on the last Porters record (with the exception of Rob Childs, who adds some stellar steel playing), the record is mostly an acoustic singer-songwriter affair. A couple tracks consist of nothing more than Griffin and a guitar, a gutsy display for a guy who has taken shots in the past for both his lyrics and a limited vocal range.
Nonetheless, as a whole, Victories works as well, and probably better, than any set of songs Griffin has delivered in the past. It’s certainly his most personal; “Alma Mater” and the album-opening “When I’m Out Walking With You” are simple but public declarations of love for wife Kate St. John (a musician herself, she contributes a string arrangement here, a backing vocal there). Both songs manage to bypass schmaltz in favor of genuine poignancy.
Additional first-person narrative display hints of late ’60s ideology. Witness the anti-war busk of “Flack Jacket”, which looks at war from the perspective of the scared draftee wondering why he’s sitting in a foxhole of a land he probably hadn’t heard of until the week before. (And then there’s the cover of Phil Ochs’ “Sailors And Soldiers”, with appropriate vocal assistance provided by Billy Bragg). “I Wish I Was A Mountain”, meanwhile, is metaphorically steeped in a back-to-nature vibe; if you can let down your jaded ’90s cynicism for a moment, you’ll find a refreshing sincerity here.
Further points of interest include a silly but fun romp with old friend Steve Wynn about always coming up on the short end of international currency swaps in “The Rate Of Exchange”; and a stringed take on Thelonious Monk’s “Monk’s Mood” that provides a surprising and interesting interlude toward the end of the album.
The sole obvious misstep is “The Man Who Invented The Blues”. I defy anyone to get past these couplets without a wince: “Like Salk and his penicillin/Like capturing the villain/Like Moses to the Jews/I’m the man who invented the blues.”