Grant-Lee Phillips,
(Rounder/Zoe, 2007)

"Subatomic quark-related clusters of old school Big-Bang-style strange matter" is how the word "strangelet" is defined in the press release for the latest album by Grant-Lee Phillips. How this relates to the weeping sheep pictured on the CD cover is a bit of a mystery, but then Phillips, according to the artist bio that accompanied the disc, is less interested in linearity than he is in irrationality ... even in his creative methods. "I've learned how to coax [the recording process] along, to leave it teetering on the edge, how to booby trap my own work so there's bound to be an accident."

Strangelet is the third Grant-Lee Phillips release I've reviewed for Rambles.NET and while it's the most aggressive disc of the bunch it's still a tight, controlled, intimate album. Even the fuzzed-out guitar that launches the dynamic opening track "Runaway" is set so far back in the mix that it's hardly the chaotic, high-octane recording I expected from reading the release. But with contributions from R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck ("Fountain of Youth," "Soft Asylum") and musical nods to the likes of Echo & the Bunnymen ("Runaway"), John Lennon ("Return to Love") and Neil Young ("Killing a Dead Man"), Strangelet is a very enjoyable, musically diverse album.

Back in 2004 I described Phillips' Virginia Creeper as "an album that slides out of your speakers and into your head with an ease that's astounding." This time out, despite a more electric approach on a number of tracks, Phillips hasn't abandoned his folkie foundations. There's plenty of jangly acoustic guitar and lazy, behind-the-beat vocals on songs like "Dream in Color" and "Same Blue Devils" for fans of the quieter Phillips style. And the inclusion of a heaping helping of 8-string ukulele on "Fountain of Youth" gives that track a distinct personality that helps make it a real standout while tempering the elevated energy established by the more raucous opening tracks on Strangelet.

There are some wonderfully lush moments on this disc courtesy of Eric Gorfain's string arrangements for the Section Quartet. On "Dream in Color" the strings have a distinctly Beatle-esque quality that takes an unexpected gentle turn into bluegrass overtones. It's a terrific combination. Unfortunately, the song is followed by the practically indistinguishable melody of "Chain Lightning," which seems initially to be an unnecessary extension of the preceding cut. Surprisingly, by the end of the track one realizes it's a solid rock 'n' roll number; it's just a shame that its melody and arrangement are so similar to "Dream in Color," at least until the electric lead break kicks in.

The last song I want to spotlight is another that owes a large debt to the Beatles. "Hidden Hand" is classic mid-tempo, 12-bar-blues-derived rock 'n' roll. It's built on a beautifully balanced foundation of acoustic rhythm and understated electric lead guitar. The song's production isn't flashy, though there are some interesting percussion elements that keep it from sounding at all bland. The absence of studio embellishments allows the listener to remain focused on the clean, easy melody Phillips has constructed and, by not demanding the listen's attention, the song maintains the sort of quiet potency that will give it a tremendous shelf life. I never seem to tire of the track.

Strangelet's strengths are somewhat frontloaded, leaving the tail end of the album feeling slightly anonymous. Certainly ending with as nondescript a composition as "So Much," a song that's also hamstrung by an arrangement that feels as though Phillips had run out of production ideas, is not the strongest way to close out this disc. A few more musical surprises a la the ukulele in "Fountain of Youth" plus one more outstanding melody to replace "So Much" and this would be a truly magnificent listening experience. As it stands, Strangelet is a solid album, one that reveals its strengths slowly, over repeated listens. Expect to play it frequently.

review by
Gregg Thurlbeck

11 August 2007

what's new