Grant-Lee Phillips’ long career to date has been bookended by brilliance. Fuzzy, his debut album with Grant-Lee Buffalo, was one of the rock landmarks of the early ’90s. Fourteen years and a string of solo records later, his sublime 2006 cover album Nineteeneighties paid tribute to classic acts from New Order to Pixies, proving Phillips was an artist with a musical voice so singular he could take on almost anything and make it his own.
Yet Phillips’ emotive, widescreen songwriting has always walked a thin line, at times becoming overblown and occasionally lapsing into stodgy blue-collar rock. Sadly, while Little Moon offers glimpses of GLP at his best, more often than not it gives this side free reign.
The upbeat stomper “Good Morning Happiness” starts the show with a banality and leadenness that will likely leave you cold. The air-punching MOR of “Strangest Thing” could be late Springsteen, with some of the soft-focus upholstery of a David Gray track. Its reliance on clichéd lines like “You gotta believe in something” certainly do it no favours. The title track is much more likeable, as Phillips returns to the multi-layered, filigree realm he’s made his own. There’s a swooning, salon-like air to the song, with its languid piano, brushed percussion, intricate picking, and lilting strings, and while not exactly a work of searing originality, it’s beautifully performed and produced.
“It Ain’t the Same Old Cold War, Harry” is even better: a smartly penned appeal to an anachronistic cold warrior — Truman? — to adapt to an ambivalent new world. With its marching-band swagger and trumping brass, it’s full of jazzy showtune insouciance. “Seal With A Kiss” is a rushing, loved-up rocker cushioned on layers of springy organ. It’s middle-brow, pool-hall rock, and it smells of flannel shirts and workman’s benches. Ryan Adams does this sort of thing far better.
Trying a little too hard to be luscious, “Nightbirds” strays the wrong side of obvious and struggles under the weight of its own contrivances. “Violet” is better — a sweet, delicate ballad built on deft little guitar touches and snowdrop piano, as Phillips’ burnished voice curls like smoke between the notes.
As ever, the textures of Grant-Lee Phillips’ music are what ultimately seduce you. His sensibility is essentially baroque, his sound world full of tenebrous, labyrinthine emotional states. Even when the songwriting is less than brilliant, listening to a GLP song is like sinking into soft crimson fabric. A good example of this is “Buried Treasure”, which is no great shakes as a song but manages to win you over with its moody, intoxicating instrumentation. And if all else fails, there’s always that languorous, lagoon-deep voice, so rich it could lend a modicum of grace and majesty to the recital of a shopping list.
But even all of this can’t save the cloying “Blind Tom”, a stab at Randy Newman-style musical storytelling that’s sticky with coy faux-emotionalism. Meanwhile “One Morning” is stuffed full of hokum about sunrises, rolling trucks and crying roosters. Musically and lyrically, it dusts off every country-folk cliché in the book.
Things get no better with “Older Now”, a maudlin affair drenched in soporific strings. You want to go with Grant on this one, but he insists on underlining everything in such heavy pencil you end up stifling a groan. When an artist starts croaking on about “angels in white”, it’s time to book that refresher course at the Gram Parsons School of Wasted Beauty.
Then he pulls a gem out of the bag. Closer “The Sun Shines on Jupiter” is a piece of archly playful dixie jazz that swings by in a ticker tape parade of deliciously droll lyrics. “I dare say it’s sweater weather every single day”, croons Phillips, suddenly transformed into a kind of butch, power-tool-wielding Rufus Wainwright.
Little Moon sees a lack of imagination and an over-reliance on hackneyed musical and lyrical phrases threatening to eclipse Grant-Lee Phillips’ indubitable talent. It also reminds us that on form, few can touch him. But throughout this album words like “worthy”, “crafted”, and “earnest” spring to mind — and in pop music they never should.