Grant-Lee Phillips,
Virginia Creeper
(Zoe/Rounder, 2004)

If you're a fan of the Jayhawks' fusion of country, folk and rock and can imagine mixing in a smattering of Dexy's Midnight Runners' instrumentation and Kevin Rowland's vocal style, you'll have a pretty good sense of what to expect from Grant-Lee Phillips. What your picture of that concoction won't let you envision is the effortlessness of Virginia Creeper. This is an album that slides out of your speakers and into your head with an ease that's astounding.

Phillips is the former front man of the band Grant Lee Buffalo. One other Buffalo alumnus joins Phillips for his solo debut: Bill Bonk adds his accordion to the violin, mandolin, pedal steel and Gibson acoustic guitar blend that define the new/old sound of Grant-Lee Phillips. It's a sound that Phillips credits to his live playing over the past few years. With the break up of Grant Lee Buffalo and no record label tour support, Phillips stripped back to the "enforced minimalism" of guitar and vocals in his live gigs. In the process he rediscovered his awe of songwriting and the result of his new attitude is Virginia Creeper.

It's a fitting title for the disk as there's a lazy, hot afternoon feel to the music that belies its air-conditioned Hollywood recording studio setting. However, with the songs recorded live off the floor with very little post-production meddling, any LA-slick influence is minimized. Virginia Creeper has a sound that showcases the strength of Phillips' songwriting allowing the melodies to float across the accompaniment. And the breathy vocal delivery employed on many of the tracks including the lead-off single, "Mona Lisa" is dead on.

Among the other stand-out tracks are "Dirty Secret," on which Cindy Wasserman's understated singing meshes beautifully with Phillips' lead vocal, and "Wish I Knew" with its three-point rhythmic departure from the rest of the album. "Susanna Little" brings to mind Nick Cave's penchant for tragic story songs. And the album closes out with a lovely cover of Gram Parsons' "Hickory Wind." The inclusion of this signature piece serves to highlight how well Phillips' own compositions stand up in the shade of Parsons' "many tall pines."

There isn't a weak song among the 10 original compositions on Virginia Creeper. But none of the tracks has the meme-like quality that catapults a tune to the top of the charts so all-pervasively that a month after its release you never want to hear the song again. Virginia Creeper is an album that's sure to remain in your collection bringing you pleasure for many years.

- Rambles
written by Gregg Thurlbeck
published 21 August 2004

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