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Less than a year from releasing his last album, nineteeneighties, Grant-Lee Phillips returns with Strangelet (Zoe). Chris M. Junior and Mike Madden have the lowdown.

Chris M. Junior: While nineteeneighties was a nice detour, it’s great that Phillips has returned so quickly to making a new album of original music. On Strangelet, his acoustic guitar leads the way, and there’s an earthy presence to his playing and singing that only few solo artists in recent years — the late, great Chris Whitley among them — have possessed.

Mike Madden: It’s a change of pace from his great 2004 release, Virginia Creeper. The songs on Strangelet highlight the acoustic in a band setting much in the way Phillips’ previous band, Grant Lee Buffalo, did so well.

Junior: It’s only March, and a lot of music will be released before December rolls around, but “Soft Asylum (No Way Out)” already is one of the best songs of the year. The lyrics, vague yet relatable, are as clutter-free as the music. A less-is-more approach also was used for the cool solo that may or may not be played by R.E.M.‘s Peter Buck, who is credited with playing electric guitar on the tune.

Madden: The relatability of Phillips’ lyrics always has been understated. He’s got a way to simply take ordinary thoughts or feelings and make them more vivid as he does on “Soft Asylum (No Way Out).” But with that vagueness he also can create a dreary mood in his own unique way. “Killing a Dead Man” is a great gothic ballad that can be taken literally or can be a metaphor for broken spirits and lost ambition.

Junior: Phillips also is very good at drawing from the past as well as acknowledging it. “Hidden Hand” has an early rock ‘n’ roll feel to it, and he drops in some Buddy Holly references in “Dream in Color,” which is complemented by nice string arrangements. And the connection between “Raise the Spirit” and Norman Greenbaum‘s “Spirit in the Sky” goes beyond the title. The tone of the guitar solo is cut from the same cloth, too.

Madden: The album closes on such a high note with “So Much,” featuring some of his patented jangle pop. The album as a whole is a great testament to his artistic integrity and ability to continue to make music on his own terms. Phillips never chases a trend and thus avoids being a passing fad.