Since the demise of Grant Lee Buffalo back in 1999 (following a dispute with label Warner Bros. over lack of promotion), Buffalo’s singer/guitarist/songwriter Grant-Lee Phillips has delivered five solo records, each better than the last. Last year it was nineteeneighties, one of the most impressive cover albums of all time, wherein he turned classic Reagan-era alternative and new wave numbers into whole new indie-country songs. This year, Strangelet (named after a theoretically incredibly dense subatomic particle, one of which may have gone right through the Earth in 1993) finds Phillips more intimate than ever, but also has a strong balance between the rockin’ side of Grant Lee Buffalo, and his own, more alt-folk, persona.
Grant-Lee Phillips has always had a strong voice (voted “Best Male Vocalist” by Rolling Stone in 1995) and been a well-honed guitarist/instrumentalist, but Strangelet is the best marriage he’s ever done between the two. Phillips’ voice is the perfect spot between rough and melodic, and it has earned him comparisons with a young Neil Young or a young Bob Dylan. Such judgments might have been over the top a decade ago, but these days, they are quite apt. As a solo artist in the twenty-first century, Phillips has wisely refrained from making the kind of overtly political lyrics he did with Grant Lee Buffalo, and has successfully avoided the preachy-ness and self-righteousness that these days have weighed down Neil Young and Neil Young-wanna-be’s like Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes). Phillips’ take on America was always more wry than strident, and on Strangelet he has carried that ironic nature to the more personal, such as on the rockabilly “Hidden Hand” and especially the highway anthem, “Johnny Guitar”. Is Phillips lauding today’s serious solo guitarists, mocking their very seriousness, or both? Any which way, it’s very good – so good that it doesn’t really matter.
Strangelet opens with “Runaway”, which is subdued but driving, even in the chorus, and it keeps from being repetitive thanks to an excellent guitar breakdown. The brighter alt-folk “Fountain Of Youth” is relatively simple, but is all the better for it, as it makes the number probably the best display of Grant-Lee Phillips’ voice on the entire album. The best match-up of Phillips’ voice and instruments is on “Dream In Color”, the most melodic track on this very melodic record, whose strong rhythm allows the piece to keep its thread in the midst of many interesting variances. The slow waves and very somber alt-country of “Killing A Dead Man” is not going to be anyone’s ‘favorite’, but it is the most moving song on this also very moving record.
Unfortunately, the melancholy “Soft Asylum (No Way Out)” and the upbeat-in-tempo-as-well-as-tone “Raise The Spirit” are the likely first two singles, yet are not the best songs on Strangelet, as both are somewhat marred by going on too long (in fact, they are the two longest tracks on the release, at near five minutes each). The album’s only serious slip-up is with the penultimate “Return To Love”, whose over-reliance on Phillips’ vocals really divorces it from his instrumentation. But even that is followed by the release’s strong finisher, “So Much”, whose rockin’ backbeat helps to truly sum up Strangelet.
Grant-Lee Phillips has a reoccurring role on The CW’s Gilmore Girls, as the unnamed ‘Town Troubadour’ in the show’s oh-so-perfect town, Stars Hollow. In the show’s season one finale, Phillips’ character defended his ‘unnamed-ness’ as being part of the ‘town troubadour mystique’: “You’re not supposed to talk. You’re not supposed to run a Kinko’s. You’re supposed to speak through your music. That’s the whole point.” While we know Phillips’ name from his solo work and his eponymous Buffalo, with Strangelet, he still has the mystique, and is speaking through his music better than ever.