Michael Stipe loved and feared Grant Lee Buffalo, the folk-rock outfit led by Grant-Lee Phillips, when he first heard Fuzzy, their 1993 debut. Phillips was armed with a booming baritone and a keen sense of storytelling. Fuzzy also flew in the face of the music of the day, which was either grunge or post-Manchester UK pop. It was easy to see why Stipe singled out Phillips as a talent to be reckoned with.
Phillips and Grant Lee Buffalo made the case even more convincing with 1994's Mighty Joe Moon, a superb collection of folk tales and history lessons. (No less a pop prince than Neil Finn recently performed "Honey Don't Think", the crown jewel of Mighty Joe Moon, in a duet with Phillips during a recent stop in LA.) Later that year, they contributed a bone-chilling version of "We've Only Just Begun" to the Carpenters tribute album If I Were a Carpenter. The boys were on a roll.
That was eight years ago. Since then, the career of Phillips and Grant Lee Buffalo doesn't contain a whole lot to love, and certainly nothing to fear. 1996's Copperopolis was a huge misstep, and ultimately led to the departure of longtime bassist and producer Paul Kimble. 1998's Jubilee was better, and boasted a who's who list of L.A. popsters (Jon Brion, E, Greg Leisz) and assorted friends (Robyn Hitchcock and, natch, Michael Stipe). However, much like its predecessor, it failed to ignite in what was then an all ska world. Phillips would soon dissolve the band and go solo.
Mobilize, from last year, had some of the old black magic of Phillips' best work with the Buffalo, but lacked in consistency. Ladies' Love Oracle, Phillips' latest, was recorded in three days in Jon Brion's basement studio. It became a big hit at his gigs and is now seeing the light of day as an official release. Fans not lucky enough to live in SoCal rejoiced. For something that only took three days to record, it's a surprisingly challenging listen. Those looking for another "Lone Star Song" are advised to look elsewhere. This is not your older brother's Grant Lee Phillips. In fact, these songs are so delicate they'd likely break at the slightest touch.
"You're a Pony" is a hushed lullaby in the tradition of Mighty Joe Moon's "Happiness", "I'm a zebra, but that's all right / All I see is black and white", he whispers, turning a borderline absurd utterance into high concept symbolism on delivery alone. "Folding" has some nifty slide guitar work and a pure Kenny Rogers lyric: "Darlin' I'm folding / I lay down my hand and walk away from you". The most upbeat moment has to be "Squint", mainly because it's one of only two songs with any kind of percussion, and it's a sparse one at that.
There's no denying that Phillips is a very talented songwriter, but Ladies' Love Oracle sells him short in two regards. For starters, he doesn't once use that aforementioned booming baritone, which is borderline criminal. Why an artist blessed with a voice like his would choose not to use his full range is as mysterious as it is confounding. The other problem with Oracle is its speed. It has three of them: slow, slower, and really, really slow. What made his earlier work so intriguing were the shifts in dynamics from one moment to the next, sometimes within the same song. Those jumps in energy are nonexistent here, turning some pretty songs into little more than sonic NyQuil.
Grant Lee Phillips is turning into the underachieving honor student, the one who can clearly ascend to untold levels of greatness but instead chooses to rebel against his parents. Perhaps a few doses of shock treatment will get Phillips out of his fugue and back to doing what he does best. As it is, Ladies' Love Oracle is more of a testament to his untapped potential than anything else.