While you’re at it, jump over to the Grant-Lee Phillips Web site, click on the link to his sublimely lo-fi video for “Raise The Spirit,” and marvel at Phillips’ remarkable ability to channel “Imagine” era Lennon, T-Rex and Tom Waits as effortlessly as he probably ties his shoes.
Yes, I’m a little biased. Earlier this year Grant-Lee Phillips sucker-punched me with a glowing homage to his favorite artists in the form of a CD entitled nineteeneighties. It’s one of the best albums I’ve heard in a long, long time, chock full of clever and surprising interpretations of some of the best music to come out of the decade that serves as the CD’s namesake. His deconstruction and reassembly of tunes like the Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry” and his respectfully accurate, yet personalized take on the Church’s “Under The Milky Way Tonight” were highlights among an album with no shortage of bright moments.
So when this Strangelet thing arrived, swaddled in the standard Rounder Records swag, I was both eager and apprehensive. Though I’d been aware of Phillips for quite a while (as well as the band that most of us associate with him, Grant Lee Buffalo) that last album made an impression on me, and when another disc arrives so closely on the heels of something that good, well, it better be darn good as well.
Strangelet is. Really good, actually. It’s as if that little excursion into his roots earlier this year sparked something powerful in Phillips’ creative process, and out tumbled a dozen tunes endowed with varying degrees of lyrical firepower, musical sleight of hand and, most importantly, that sense of urgency that surfaces in an artist’s material when they’re inspired. “Runaway” comes chiming in like something mistakenly left off of Achtung Baby, with a surging acoustic guitar eventually drowning in clangorous layers of crunchy electric melody and pulsing bass beneath Phillips’ emotive warble. “Soft Asylum” is the most obvious choice for a single here, recalling a little of David Gray in the delivery, and it’s got all the right ingredients: nice melody, pretty words and a lush, ringing bed of guitars for his falsetto to stretch out over.
But once you hit “Hidden Hand Of Fate” that pleasant, inevitable curveball that Phillips has a knack for slinging towards his listeners is readily apparent. Between the vaguely 50’s styled rave up in the intro and the copious amount of slap-back echo slathered on his voice, it’s clear that Mr. Phillips may have broken out a copy of Electric Warrior at some point recently. It’s a sound that makes a few more appearances on Strangelet, later sprinkling a little Lennon into the mix on “Raise The Spirit” and the swaggering bounce of “Johnny Guitar.”
This is a different approach for Phillips, allowing him to cast off the “sensitive acoustic guy” persona for a while and just bang out some rock and roll. However, for all the glammy bombast of these tracks, thankfully there’s more to dig into lyrically than one would assume on the surface. Depending on your personal interpretation, some political references might be lurking in verses like “...set your nuclear rockets to aim/when you mingle riches and faith/the rules of the game/ sooner or late...”
Phillips reaches again into his Brit-pop bag of tricks for the Beatle-esque “Chain Lightning,” and continues mixing smart chords with even smarter lyrics, this time with less subtlety. At the end of the second verse, with the question “are you losing count?” following lines about brute force, gun obsession and foreign ground, the picture begins to focus pretty quickly.
Strangelet succeeds because it’s just plain good, and while it can’t hurt to have REM’s Peter Buck lending a hand here and there, it’s obvious that Grant-Lee Phillips can more than take care of himself musically. Odd in the best way, it’s funny that the only tune that sounds out of place here is the one that comes across as the most... normal.
If this guy manages to crank out a third release this year that somehow meets the standards set by the two he’s put out so far, I’m going to have to send him a pie or something. Excellent.