Grant Lee Phillips’ ‘Virginia Creeper’ disc a mixed bag

Dan Newton

“Virginia Creeper” is a strange album for Grant Lee Phillips to release at this time in his career, his third solo outing since the break-up of the indie-rock cult band, Grant Lee Buffalo. Gone are all the avant-noise, bells and whistles that made his last album, “Mobilize,” such a distinct and attractive offering. Any listener expecting more of the same might be slightly disappointed.

The timing of this release, for Phillips, is kind of like Bob Dylan putting out the all acoustic folk album “John Wesley Harding” at the peak of the psychedelic era. Phillips is still in the driver’s seat-again producing, writing and arranging his material- but he takes a stark and stripped-down approach here that brings him back to his folksy roots. Accompanied sparsely by violins, the occasional accordion or ukelele, and quiet percussion, the focus is primarily on the vocals.

Phillips is gifted with one of the most impressive voices in contemporary music, but he does not always sing beautiful songs. The arrangements on this record are appropriately spare and suit the material well, but it is performed in such a casual, relaxed groove that nothing feels particularly compelling or memorable. As always, Phillips is in fine voice, but with all the attention on it, the listener also focuses on what is sung. The characters of these songs are drawn from a mythic America- and there is some real poetry here- but some might say his conscious, literate effort is labored.

Phillips is trying to stake his claim in the crowded echelon of singer-songwriters, but there is a delicate balance here that he is slightly missing. To be fair, it did take Dylan and Bruce Springsteen a while to figure that out themselves. The title of the album is apt, because after a few more spins, some of these songs that left no first impression start to creep on you.

And despite some of my lyrical complaints, the songs are often good enough to carry them anyway. “Calamity Jane,” with lyrics like “washed in the tears of the revolution, babe”seems to be a tribute to Jane Fonda, and a brilliant one at that. The lean, rockabilly ambience of “Wish I Knew” displays some of the playfulness of his previous band.

At times witty and poignant, “Virginia Creeper” remains an intriguing album despite its peak and valley rhythms, and shows the artist in a contemplative mood. It will be interesting to see what move Phillips takes next, because now- it is anyone’s guess.