Grant Lee Phillips – Strangelet

Grant Lee Phillips

The relative commercial/critical failure of Grant Lee Buffalo has seemingly had a twofold effect on the subsequent solo career of frontman Grant-Lee Phillips. On the one hand, it’s allowed him the freedom to explore his most endearingly esoteric and fashion-less desires, on another it’s lead him to wallow in his most indulgent impulses. In respect to the latter, 2000’s Ladies’ Love Oracle fell victim to unplugged bedroom songwriter clichés and 2001’s Mobilize slumped into portentous electronically-embellished art-pop. In keeping with the former though, 2004’s Virginia Creeper swam in balmy folk-country waters and 2006’s effortlessly enjoyable Nineteeneighties reinterpreted ’80s indie-classics for the new Americana generation. Throughout it all, GLP has proved himself to be prone to bouts of near-brilliance – despite of himself. Somewhat handily, this is a shorthand summary that almost neatly describes his latest long-player, the clumsily-titled and stubbornly contrary Strangelet.

In essence, Strangelet is very much the product of a mixed musical personality stand-off. For its Dr Jekyll side, we happily find GLP serving-up more of the succulent warm pleasures of Virginia Creeper and Nineteeneighties. Thus, the yearning “Soft Asylum (No Way Out)” and “So Much” are the kind of strummy folk-rock treasures that would have sat well with the better moments of Buffalo Tom’s overlooked Big Red Letter Day. More surprisingly, GLP also revisits the glammy Brit-rock of his former band’s Bowie/T-Rex-like contribution to 1998’s Velvet Goldmine soundtrack, with the jaunty Bolanesque acoustic shimmy of “Hidden Hand” and the slightly less effective glittery-stomp of “Raise The Spirit” – two sidesteps that would have fallen flat if it weren’t for the affectionate self-deprecation imbued within. Absolutely no reservations can be held-up against the dreamy “Fountain of Youth”, a track worthy of nearly all the album’s admission price. A rueful yet optimistic mandolin-drenched ballad strangely – but positively – reminiscent of Soul Asylum’s “Runaway Train” or the more blissful elements of R.E.M.’s Out of Time, “Fountain of Youth” is up there with other solo GLP triumphs like “Lily-A-Passion” or his transcendental take on New Order’s “Age of Consent”.

For the more Mr. Hyde-like segments, we find GLP becoming slightly unglued by his own lack of focus and self-restraint. Which translates into a few flaccid accidents, like the overwrought strings and guitar-solo squealing of the ponderous “Chain Lightening”, the similarly lumpy and banal “Johnny Guitar” and the forced-gloominess of “Killing A Dead Man”. But being the consummate charmer and survivalist that he is, GLP always has a few trump cards to keep himself in the game, and the plaintive barroom paean “Return To Love” certainly fits the get-out-of-jail criteria with winsome aplomb.

All in all, Strangelet may not be Grant-Lee Phillips’ most stirring collection of songs, but it’s certainly no catastrophe. Fans will forgive its flaws for the frequent flashes of loveliness mixed with good humour and newcomers should at least gain some sound navigational knowledge for exploring GLP’s consistently interesting body of work.