History's embellished theatrics inform Grant Lee Phillips's imaginary movie set. Whether singing about delinquent hippie trash and illicit sex on his band's moody 1993 debut, Fuzzy, or picking apart decaying cultural and industrial institutions throughout 1995's dour Copperopolis, the man behind the Buffalo seems to feel a powerful pull from the past. And though he's never been one for loftier-than-thou declarations, his nostalgic ambition and penchant for melodrama can pose a threat to the casual listener. The on-album equivalent of a brooding, well-read loner forever on the fringe of social acceptance -- and, for that matter, of reality in general -- Phillips is hardly the easiest guy to cozy up to; his intensity is as much a curse as it is a conduit.
But with Jubilee, Mr. Self-Absorbed may finally be ready to let the rest of us in, his newfound openness prompted, perhaps, by the departure of his longtime bassist, producer and creative sounding board, Paul Kimble. With Kimble gone, you could argue that Phillips has lost his primary shit-sifter. And indeed, Jubilee is spattered with B-side-quality filler. Yet something about the split seems to have leavened Phillips's creative temperament. Tunes like "APB," "Truly, Truly," "My, My, My," and "Fine How'd Ya Do" (its psychedelic carnival atmospherics making it the perfect companion piece to the Beatles' "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite") are among the most ebullient GLB has ever recorded. "Truly, truly, truly, I want you to do / Truly, truly, truly I do," Phillips coos on "Truly, Truly," the album's first single, reveling in repetition like a teen loopy from his first bout of puppy love. Indeed, compared to the opaque, beaten-down bummer that was Copperopolis, Jubilee is a regular garden party -- and for Phillips, a triumph of heart over head.
Now for the bad news. Grant Lee Buffalo's talent for offsetting turbulent minor-chord verses with soaring pop choruses has settled into formula on Jubilee; at times, it feels like the group is coasting uphill. But to his credit, Phillips -- a notorious control freak -- hired outside help for the first time in the form of producer Paul Fox (Semisonic, 10,000 Maniacs). On Jubilee, Fox took the more-is-better approach, sprucing up Phillips's multilayered acoustic and electric guitars with harmonica, banjo and accordion, as well as Moog, Hammond organ and saloon-style piano; he and Phillips even recruited Robyn Hitchcock and Michael Stipe to add a little low-key vocal seasoning. And yet Jubilee is never busy to the point of being convoluted. So while it may be the most produced Grant Lee Buffalo album to date, it's also the band's most cohesive, stunningly pretty on the surface and understatedly droll on the inside.
Prior to Jubilee, overstatement was, for the most part, the only way Grant Lee Buffalo knew how to get by. When Phillips went out of character and traded his billowy, affected vocal style for a delicate, altimeter-busting falsetto on "Mockingbirds" -- one of many masterful moments on 1994's Mighty Joe Moon -- radio reluctantly embraced the band. But "Mockingbirds" was one of a couple of exceptions on an album that adhered to a slash-and-burn folk-rock design, owing as much to the showiness of glam-era David Bowie and Marc Bolan as it did to the grounded subtleties of Gram Parsons and the Byrds. Ballsy and beautiful, Mighty Joe Moon was a concept album with no clear concept other than its own momentous sense of sweep, its imagery-packed narratives bound to no logical sense of time, logic or space.
But struggling to maintain a near-genius clip can be a draining proposition. And with Jubilee, Phillips proves that he can take a breather -- loosening his solemn expression into an easy, shit-eating grin and, if need be, even sucking a bit of wind. (***)
-- Hobart Rowland
Angels with Dirty Faces
Tricky's voice sounds like it's filtered through the cracked speaker of a broken transistor radio. He provides his own static, every other word a distorted rumble from the bottom of his throat. That human attribute defines him as much as the languid groove or the knotted coil of rhythms that snake beneath the melodies. It disturbs and thrills all at once, a hot breeze rustling music that drips with sweat.
And yet, the former Adrian Thawes is not the lone star of his show: Tricky's the name of the band, such as it is, encompassing not only Thawes's guttural roar but also Martina Topley Bird's waifish soul-sister whisper. She's the angelic heartbeat to his demonic growl, and when they tangle, it's a rumble on the dance-floor jungle. Theirs is music made by former lovers for former lovers, the sound of relationships in mid-ruin.
Angels is the inevitable follow-up to Pre-Millennium Tension, its vibe restive where Pre-Millennium predecessor Maxinquaye's was festive. It's a release for the cultists who prefer moan-and-drone eccentricity over groove-thang accessibility. It takes its cue from the second cut, "Mellow," a tune so laid-back it all but crawls. "Singing the Blues" is Tricky's most deceptively warm outing to date, Lonnie Johnson recast as a down-in-the-mouth single girl with a shit job and an empty wallet. The song builds from a lone moaning riff into a finely sculpted shuffle. A dozen rhythms move in and out of the track until it sounds like six songs crammed into the framework of one; it's dope-smoke hypnotic, getting so far under your skin it flows like blood.