erasing clouds

Grant-Lee Phillips, Virginia Creeper

reviewed by dave heaton

It's funny…the first time I saw Grant Lee Buffalo play live, they were loud, drunken rockers opening for Paul Westerberg at a time when he was making himself over into a sensitive singer-songwriter for adults. Now, about 10 years later, Paul Westerberg is getting that phase out of his system by reconnecting with his loud, loose rock n' roll side, and it's Grant-Lee Phillips, once the lead singer of the now-defunct Grant Lee Buffalo, who is crafting himself into a serious solo artist. His new album Virginia Creeper is his furthest step in that direction: it's acoustic (with light country and folk undertones), pristine-sounding, and altogether a very proper affair. Nothing about it sounds the least bit unrestrained - nearly every track sounds like an attempt to nag the slot of token introspective song on the next big Hollywood movie soundtrack or in the closing moments of a TV drama.

That's not to say that the album is worthless, or even all that disappointing. Phillips' distinctive singing voice is still arresting, and his gift for melody has not disappeared. It's just not as passionate as it could be, and the lyrics make none of the poetic links between emotion and history that made Grant Lee Buffalo's best albums so resonant and overpowering. Instead the lyrics deal with the complexities of love relationships in a fairly generic way - Phillips' way with images is still there, but the target he's shooting at seems a lot lower.

Songs like "Lily-A-Passion" and "Always Friends" show off how casually Phillips tosses off truly great melodies, even when the lyrics aren't all that impressive, while "Wish I Knew" gives a hint of some of the raw energy that lurked beneath even the most mellow Grant Lee Buffalo songs. Nearly every song on Virginia Creeper holds under clear glass the breathy longings of Phillips voice as well. Virginia Creeper on the whole has an easygoing tenderness which makes it remarkably easy on the ears, all the way through to the closing number, a pretty cover of Gram Parsons' "Hickory Wind" which meets Phillips voice with that of Cindy Wasserman, who contributes harmony vocals throughout the album. Zoe Records' press releases about the album indicate that its title can be taken as a mark that the album will slowly creep over its listeners - if that's the case, perhaps it'll grow on me further as time goes by.

{Zoe Records:}

Issue 20, February 2004

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