Phillips' “The Narrows” is self-assured alt-country from a songwriting veteran.
Grant Lee Phillips is one of those songwriters who has stuck around. He’s the healthy-looking fellow at the corner of the bar, smile curled around the corner of his mouth to signal he’s down for a chat, that he’s got stories you wouldn’t believe. In the world of country music, there’s value in his brand of wisdom. Phillips is not, however, a member of the laureled Nashville royalty. Phillips’ arrival at a country-folk sound, which he’s grown into beautifully over the course of three or four albums, was not an inevitability. Born and raised in California, Phillips spent most of his career in Los Angeles. Like his close Canadian analogue, Ron Sexsmith, he enjoyed a moment of ‘90s acclaim with his band Grant-Lee Buffalo, putting out great acoustic rock records on Warner subsidiary, Slash Records -- as well as Bob Mould's “Singles Only” label -- and carrying a loyal following in tow for the better part of three decades.
On The Narrows, his wisdom is really starting to show. The 13 tracks on The Narrows are relaxed and fresh takes on classic and contemporary folk and country, all guided by Phillips’ focused, tip-of-the-cap tenor, with just the right amount of gravel. Album opener, “Tennessee Rain” is a driving, bittersweet slice of country, that, alongside “Rolling Pin”, an uptempo honky tonk tune, displays a knack for the country anthem. His storytelling, as on “Loaded Gun”, displays a different set of bonafides, bearing distinct shades of Merle Haggard, another unlikely yet singular voice in country music who similarly blurred the lines of folk and country music.
The bulk of the record, however, runs at its own speed. Its bread and butter is the introspective, memorable, slow-tempo ballad, like “Smoke and Sparks”, his poetic march about mortality or “Cry, Cry”, his alt-country bounce with marimba-accented percussion about the Indian Removal. The album’s closing ballad, “Find My Way”, is a Nashville Skyline-esque portrait of an artist struggling to maintain clarity on tour. The narrative of a lost outsider struggling to find his way -- on a personal level, or connected explicitly to his native heritage (his parents being of Creek and Cherokee descent, respectively) -- is rife throughout. The promise of definite arrival continually evades Phillips in his songs. It's a sign of both his charismatic wisdom and the hallmark of a good country song: an awareness that trouble may well remain around every corner.
Recently relocated with his family from LA to Tennessee, Phillips' newcomer status is reflected in the production. Track one, “Tennessee Rain”, like many others on the record, distinctly lacks typical Nashville polish. Most tracks have more in common with the Band's soft-rock sound, whose song craft (particularly songs like “Evangeline”) and penchant for shouted backing vocals can be heard in the great mid-record ballads, “Yellow Weeds” and “Holy Irons”. Phillips seems more comfortable with a little delay on the vocals; he swallows his words from time to time and allows his guitarists to let loose with the reverb. In short, he's not afraid to let his rock 'n' roll colors show. And while this can -- at times -- dull the songs' wits, the arrangements' subdued focus feels intentional over the course of the record, like a well-earned preference of a veteran. While it may require more leaning-in on the part of the listener, what you find when you do will make it well worth your while.