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Wednesday, 04 October 2006 00:00

The eighties uncovered

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By Chris Cooper

It’s all too easy to dismiss the ‘80s as an era of day-glow clothes, poofy hair and painfully lame, glossy radio friendly “pop.” And thanks to the popularity of television shows like VH1’s “I Love the ‘80s,” a generation that did most of its growing up in the ‘90s now has nothing but the worst aspects of the previous decade to stare at and be glad they missed.

 

Sad, because underneath the Reaganomics and stone-washed jeans was a wealth of fantastic music, containing the genetic material that would define “alternative,” and influence what we’re hearing on the radio now — much of which simply wouldn’t even exist without the framework laid by bands like REM, the Cure, and the Smiths.

Now, what if a musician (a good one, at that) decided to grab an armful of his favorite tunes from the ‘80s, repaint them with a delicate palette of warm, sepia toned colors, and toss the results out there for all the world to see?

Grant-Lee Phillips has done just that, and man, it works. Anyone familiar with the music of Grant-Lee Buffalo probably wouldn’t bat an eye at the quality of work on Nineteeneighties. The guy’s already proven himself as a musician, earning Rolling Stone magazine’s recognition as best male vocalist in ’95, despite the fact that Grant-Lee Buffalo scored only a few radio hits and their fan base (though dedicated) was small in comparison to some of the acts the band toured with. But you’ve probably heard “Fuzzy” a few times whether you recognize the title or not.

The only nostalgia comes from the listener on Nineteeneighties — if you heard these songs the first time, it’s hard not to fall into “warm fuzzy” memory mode. And though this is kind of a tribute album, it’s far from a move of desperation by an inspiration deprived artist. Nineteeneighties is a collection of tunes that, according to Phillips, he found deeper appreciation for through learning and recording.

As much an insight to an artist’s formative influences as it is an introduction to some of the best music of the era, one could justify snagging this CD on the merit of the song selection. There are few opportunities to hear anyone tackle the Pixies, Robyn Hitchcock, Nick Cave and the Church in one 45-minute sitting.

Opening with “Wave of Mutilation,” Phillips makes a clear statement that these will not be “covers” in any strict sense — playing most of the instruments himself, crunching electric guitar is oft replaced with any number of acoustic stringed instruments, lending this Pixies classic a dreamy quality, loping along at a pace purely its own.

The peaks and valleys are fairly compressed throughout the album, partly due to Phillips’ personality as a vocalist and again the choice of instrumentation. Some of the fuzzed out, echoing guitar work familiar to the original version of the Church’s “Under The Milky Way” is kept in this reading, but in Phillips’s hands the somber beauty of the song takes on an even more powerful resonance. It’s also a personal favorite, so I could be somewhat biased.

“So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” is one of the only renditions that falls a little close to home with Phillips channeling Michael Stipe’s pleading tone almost too well, albeit on top of a confidently stripped down arrangement.

Anyone familiar with the Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry” will likely be perfectly happy with this version though. Hearing the intro melody rearranged for mandolin and glockenspiel, paired with Phillips’ less-than-urgent delivery makes one of the most memorable statements here — a picture perfect example of an artist making a song his own.

And by the time he leaps into falsetto on Marr and Morrissey’s “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me,” the song resembles something from Jeff Buckley’s catalog rather than the Smiths.

Oh, the relief of hearing something painstakingly crafted and executed, an album that defines itself without trying too hard. And this isn’t mere gushing. Forget all those wistful ‘80s collections. Nineteeneighties is the only one those in the 30-something crowd will need. The point here wasn’t to make something “better,” because with this group of tunes, you really can’t outshine the original.

What Grant-Lee Phillips has done is shed a very different light on some music you may have thought you’d already heard, making it glow and sparkle in ways you never might’ve expected.

I had sworn off the whole “star rating” system, feeling that it was more relevant to hotels and eateries than music, but damn if Nineteeneighties doesn’t deserve five of them. Highly recommended.

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