You can say what you like about ol’ Donny Trump, his tenure as POTUS has certainly been a powerful cure for writer’s block. Songwriters from all genres – from Moby to Neil Young – have been so moved by the shenanigans of America’s 45th president that they’ve been driven to comment on it by creating art. Unless Kid Rock whipped something out while I wasn’t looking, none of it casts D.T. in a particularly positive light, but that’s a discussion for a different forum. For Widdershins, Grant Lee Phillips stormed into a studio, raged for four solid days and left, hopefully cleansed and unburdened.
Four days in a studio isn’t long in 2018. Gone are the days of bands setting up, blasting through their repertoire and then leaving, with the cymbals still swinging on their stands. Four days is normally what it takes for the bassist to choose what chair he’s going to sit on. Grant Lee Phillips however, was a man in a hurry and along with Jerry Roe (drums), and Lex Price (bass) he ripped through Widdershins at a cracking pace. Does it sound rough, rushed and lackluster? Not at all. Quite the reverse, in fact.
Widdershins means “to proceed counter-clockwise”. Or, against the grain. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Phillips is singing with a dissenting voice, and a short, ultra-focussed blast of vitriol was his method of spitting bars of rage (as the young people say). It works very well. As an album, it’s tight and consistent, and the “power trio” setting is perfect, being unfussy and direct. It’s also brought out the best in him, and Phillip’s voice has never sounded better. On “Liberation”, Phillips sings like he means it and even has time for a stinging guitar solo to emphasize the equally stinging lyric. Roe and Price rise and fall behind him and make a huge noise for three people. There’s very little ornamentation here, and the songs are all the better for that.
There’s an echo of Grant Lee Buffalo here, too, both sonically and in the subject matter. When the (Grant Lee) Buffalo first roamed in the early 1990s, we had George Bush, the L.A riots and the aftermath of the Gulf War to deal with. Plus ça change, eh? “Walk in Circles” and “Totally You Gunslinger” have the feel of Phillips’ previous trio, but that’s not to say that Widdershins is a retrograde step as this material sounds as fresh as a daisy.
It’s not all fists being shaken at the sky on Widdershins. There is a little bit of playful humor here and there. On “Miss Betsy”, it’s not clear whether Phillips is singing about a “Mrs. Robinson” style relationship, an employee talking about his employer or if he’s making a point about the labor situation in the US. Whatever the rationale, it’s a great, easy strummer of a tune. “Scared Stiff” takes its name from a Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin flick, but it’s not a knockabout romp at all. It’s a tense, staccato rocker and one of the albums high points.
Will these Trump inspired works stand the test of time? Who knows, I mean, when was the last time you played Gil Scott-Heron’s “Re-Ron” for example? Or CSNY’s “Ohio”? By commenting on a particular individual or moment in time, you’re almost nailing your music to one spot. Widdershins may be one of those albums we play in a few years’ time when we’re having a “did that really happen?” moment. The great thing is, that regardless of the subject matter it’s a fine piece of work. Anyone nostalgic for Reagan yet?