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Grant-Lee Phillips - Ninteeneighties Review

by Patrick Muldowney

In the newest installment from Grant-Lee Phillips, the prolific artist cozies up to his favorite songs from the Nineteeneighties, utilizing the rootsy, unplugged approach for which Phillips has become synonymous. Much like Mark Kozelek, Phillips has such a distinctive resonance, he could cover South American tribal chants, and they would still come out sounding like a Grant-Lee song. Forsaking such possibilities, Nineteeneighties is filled with mostly identifiable songs from a time when lines were not drawn between Alternative and Independent music. Having chosen songs that played frequently on 120 Minutes and college radio, and received a great deal of buzz, the immediate appeal stems from looking down the track list to test out his interpretations of the recognizable songs.

Out of the classic buzz tracks, Phillips' "Blue Hawaii" take on The Pixies' "Wave of Mutilation", which ends up sounding similar to "Sea of Love", represents the apex of this album's intellect. Recognizing that the slowed down version is markedly better, and better suited to him, I love how he Don Ho's the guitars with a lazy electric slide and a luau-like acoustic rhythm. Surprisingly, he also sounds his best covering Black Francis, which hundreds have attempted with less success. The only disappointment is that Grant-Lee Phillips didn't couple "Wave of Mutilation" with "Where Is My Mind". Nineteeneighties also provides a lovely cover of The Psychedelic Furs' "Love My Way". Phillips does not have the endearing rasp of Richard Butler, but he does have the tone, and the inclusion of Eric Gorfain's violin provides the pretentiously artsy aura this gem deserves. If you're not a Cure purist, "Boys Don't Cry" is also worth mentioning. Musically borrowing from the Cure's MTV Unplugged performance to include toy piano, the obvious similarities are overshadowed by the starkly American voice of Phillips, which is right on key, but may represent too much of a departure for Robert Smith fans.

From the lesser-known tracks, "Age of Consent" sounds more like an original borrowed from Mighty Joe Moon than a New Order cover. Of all the former singles assembled, this, complete with its full band Americana sound, is the best possible single for Nineteeneighties. The last few New Order discs have been so awful; maybe they should collaborate with Phillips in hopes that he can recapture their pop, as he does with "Age of Consent". The Smiths' "Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me" melodically concludes Nineteeneighties. Phillips shows a range here, and a use of falsetto, that Grant Lee fans have seldom heard, even sounding a bit like Craig Wedren. In true Morrissey fashion, Phillips makes "Last Night…," for all its loneliness, sound like a bedtime lullaby.

Nineteeneighties is a nostalgic trip for more mature listeners (or a doorway to classics for those under twenty), yet, beyond that historical purpose, Grant-Lee Phillips has provided a different life for these tracks. The majority benefit, while the few that do not are purely victims of drudgery, rather than butchery. Considering the precarious task of recording covers, because they often sound displaced and over examined, Grant-Lee Phillips shows a great deal of tact while placing his retrospective stamp on some timeless pieces.

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Grant-Lee Phillips - Ninteeneighties


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