nineteeneighties – Grant-Lee Phillips
Grant-Lee Phillips’ recorded history goes back 20 years, most notably with albums as part of Grant Lee Buffalo, followed by three solo albums. On nineteeneighties he scours the past for a compact album of covers, 44 minutes even, that represents a look back to what settled into his consciousness just as he was forming his first band the alternative sounds that briefly staked a major claim in the mainstream music charts years later.
His taste rates a good grade, with a nod towards artists who topped the college radio charts The Pixies, Joy Division, New Order, Nick Cave, Robyn Hitchcock, The Smiths, and The Psychedelic Furs and a few who did that and eventually made a commercial dent — R.E.M., The Cure, The Church and Echo & the Bunnymen.
The minimalist arrangements applied to this material find Phillips’s voice and guitar at front and center with little embellishment. It allows his blend of intensity, melancholy and a weary acknowledgement of impending doom to gather dramatic weight and reform the tunes into a shape of his own creativity. The best results come about when he chooses songs that are not inextricably linked with the original version. Picking a lesser-known Smiths’ number (“Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Love Me”) allows him to develop a subdued power with the combination of voice, guitar and string accompaniment. The Pixies' “Wave of Mutilation” and The Cure’s “Boys Don’t Cry” prove to be less successful because he can’t overpower each number’s distinctive style, leaving them as re-enactments rather than fully transformed.
As a concept, nineteeneighties mostly works. As a document of those who made a lasting impact, it’s certainly a project that could be cobbled together by anyone that takes music (too) seriously. Of course, few would probably do as nice of a job as Phillips does in making much of the material a nod to the past as well as morphing it to suit his persona. But, the main problem behind this idea is that he stops after track 11. Even if it was a hidden bonus track, he could have wrapped up the entire album’s premise by including a song penned by him, brand new or written back in the 80s, in order to present a glimmer of how these artists affected him. It doesn’t matter that those who have followed his career may already hear the subtle or obvious presence of these bands. Without it, nineteeneighties lacks the period at the end of the sentence, causing the proceedings to feel a little hollow and of a more stopgap than a complete idea.