At a recent show in Chicago, Grant-Lee Phillips and band performed his latest album almost in its entirety, playing 10 of 11 songs. This is not unusual for the promotion of a new album. What was unusual was they also played about half of Grant Lee Buffalo's 1994 masterpiece Mighty Joe Moon and 1993's debut Fuzzy. Only one song was pulled out from Grant's last album, Mobilize. The setlist kept traveling 10 years backwards and forwards like a time machine, skipping over most of the material in between.
The blend of old and new felt entirely appropriate. Virginia Creeper is a return of sorts to the pastoral folk and country-influenced rock of GLB's early days, but without the electric guitars. After Mighty Joe Moon, Phillips wrote the baroque, ornate, and cruelly underrated Copperopolis and the slick pop rock of their swan song Jubilee. After that band's dissolution, Grant's full-length solo debut (the aforementioned Mobilize) drew even further away from political/romantic Americana, and closer to the sunnier melodic pop of So-Cal cohorts Jon Brion and Aimee Mann.
Virginia Creeper eschews both the fuzz guitars of Grant's early days, and the sampled textures and digital sounds that have infiltrated his later work. The arrangements are mostly acoustic: fiddle, banjo, brushed drums, upright bass, mandolin, pedal steel. The warm production suits Phillips's voice, which sounds for all the world, as my good friend once put it, like "chocolate velvet." The lope and sway of "Far End of the Night" utilizes one of Grant's favorite rhythms (see "Mockingbirds") overlaid with haunting vibes (the instrument, dude) and one of his most gorgeous melodies. "Wish I Knew" is a jumpy, carnivalesque tune that showcases Phillips' vocal instrument not just for its timbre, but its ability to roll and skip, spitting out words rapid-fire in one instance, stretching them out the next.
Just as GLB's early lyrics often centered on heroes and heroines from history and mythology, Virginia Creeper is full of character-driven songs. The album begins with the playful "Mona Lisa". The lyrics reference the artifact of Da Vinci's painting, while treating its namesake as a partner in a long-term relationship, "Ain't nothin' that stays the same, won't ask it a' you / Just that burgundy smile you wore yesterday, say ya won't ever lose". The metaphor-play is clever, but endearing. The woman in "Lily-a-Passion" is "a piratey soul, full a' vinegar and glitter". She is also "a canary royal", "a fork in the road", and her smile is like "the apples of Pomona".
I've read reviews where Phillips is taken to task for being too smart, too literary. But the words seem chosen not simply to impress, but for their musical value. Phillips has perfected a way of singing intricate lines so that they glide with the song, instead of poking out in odd places. Sometimes it's nearly impossible to make sense of the words without consulting the lyrics sheet, but not because of any sloppy or mumbling delivery. Syllables are stressed to fit the meter -- which invites listeners to be lulled by the melody as much as the story.
There aren't many performers capable of singing (on "Josephine of the Swamps"), let alone writing, "Oh the slough winds all serpentine / Full of black delta peat / Yellow bronze grapes of muscadine / Grown wild and sweet", but Grant sure does, and with a crack band. "Josephine" is rhythmically buoyant, anchored in the percussion. The atmosphere mirrors the bayou itself, Phillips's banjo winding snake-like around the drums, his low and husky voice paired with Cindy Wasserman's apt harmony.
Although Virginia Creeper is a return in some ways to the days of "Dixie Drug Store" and "Lady Godiva and Me", the album is more about refinement than regression, comforting and fresh. The only obvious choice is the album's closer, a cover of Gram Parson's "Hickory Wind", a song that's been covered quite a bit in recent memory. Still, I want to give Phillips the benefit of the doubt. After 40 minutes of odes to ghosts, ancestors, and lovers, and Calamity Jane, we get to sink into a song about place and time, a song that has its destiny as an American classic pretty much nailed down. Mr. Phillips would appear to be making his way down that road as well.