Grant-Lee Phillips: Virginia Creeper

Grant-Lee Phillips: Virginia Creeper

Used-CD stores are littered with the remains of '90s alt-rock also-rans, bands snatched up in the music industry's post-Nevermind feeding frenzy, given a moment in the spotlight, and then allowed to disappear. Most deserve the anonymity, but anyone taking a chance on Grant Lee Buffalo's back catalog won't come away disappointed. Joining rock energy to more traditional sounds, the band attempted to bridge the gap between the Singles soundtrack and Music From Big Pink. The public didn't bite, but the band earned a dedicated following that has thankfully allowed frontman Grant-Lee Phillips to segue into a solo career. The lovely, spare Virginia Creeper is his third solo album, with 10 original songs (and one well-chosen cover) sung from the wistful, often sad perspective of dirt-road America. For Phillips, it's a place haunted by indecipherable women. With a ukulele-line supplied by friend Jon Brion, "Josephine Of The Swamps" finds either a femme fatale or a guardian angel in the bayou. Loaded with Vietnam-era imagery, "Calamity Jane" plunges into the contradictions of a more easily identifiable woman, and with "Mona Lisa," Virginia Creeper's first and best song, Phillips considers the personification of ambiguity itself. Phillips' emotions sound somewhat confused, but his ear for pleasing arrangements remains sharp, and the album's best moments have a way of sneaking up from the background. The long waltz of "Susanna Little," for example, gains instruments as its drama mounts, and the same kind of slow, insistent pace guides most of the tracks, building to a closing take on Gram Parsons' "Hickory Wind." As usual, Phillips does right by his tradition of choice. Also as usual, he finds a way to make it his own, investing a familiar song with a voice that could never be called less than original.

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