Grant-Lee Phillips,
(Rounder/Zoe, 2006)

From the first, Hawaiian-tinged chords of "Wave of Mutilation," the opening track on Grant-Lee Phillips Nineteeneighties, it's evident this is not an overly reverential album. Phillips isn't afraid to put his own stamp on another artist's work and, in fact, the best tracks on this release are the ones that do stray from the original artist's arrangements.

Over the years there have been a number of artists who have recorded albums built exclusively of cover versions of songs that have been particularly key influences on their musical growth. John Lennon's Rock 'n' Roll springs to mind, as do UB40's Labour of Love and Tori Amos's Strange Little Girls. Key to the artistic success of such an album is the ability to take one's influences and blend one's own style into the new interpretations. Simply churning out carbon copies of personal favorite tunes seems a rather pointless exercise.

So does Grant-Lee Phillips' collection of songs from the new wave/electropop era measure up?

Phillips' solo work is quite removed from the techo-punk sensibilities of New Order and the Cure. And that distance helps make his versions of "Age of Consent" and "Boys Don't Cry" among the most intriguing inclusions on Nineteeneighties. "Age of Consent" is one of the album's best tracks as the tune's simplicity emerges, stripped of New Order's synthesizer swirl, revealed as something quite lovely and delicate. On "Boys Don't Cry," the new arrangement includes toy piano in place of the original electric guitar and the result is slightly gimmicky, distracting the listener from the emotional edge that Phillips' slower-paced vocal is attempting to bring to the track.

Too much of the rest of Nineteeneighties is significantly less adventurous. Both the arrangements and Phillips' vocal delivery on songs including REM's "So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry)," Psychedelic Furs' "Love My Way" and "The Killing Moon" by Echo & the Bunnymen are too similar to the original versions to provoke any real excitement. One is left wanting to dig out the original and hear the way the song is supposed to sound.

Where Phillips is more successful is with the somewhat more obscure tracks he's chosen to reinterpret. "City of Refuge," originally recorded by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, "The Eternal" from Joy Division's Closer album and "Under the Milky Way" by Australia's the Church all feel completely natural in Phillips' hands. "The Eternal" in particular is a standout track. The acoustic guitar, piano and harmonica bed this version employs makes for a less depressive yet more haunting outing than the cold, synth- and reverb-drenched original. Phillips sings slightly behind the beat giving the song a properly world-weary tone, but this is neatly offset by quiet keyboard embellishments.

Nineteeneighties closes with "Last Night I Dreamed Somebody Loved Me" drawn from the Smiths' 1987 album Strangeways Here We Come. It's a downbeat finale, and while Phillips thankfully bypasses the overlong intro of the original, his slippery falsetto delivery is not the strongest way to create a lasting impression. Nineteeneighties drifts off into silence in such a subdued manner that one isn't drawn back for another listen. Some terrific individual tracks, but this is not a great album as a whole.

review by
Gregg Thurlbeck

28 July 2007

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