You could be forgiven thinking that Grant Lee Buffalo was still around if you heard what Grant-Lee Phillips was doing in his solo career. His music is not so drastically different that it makes much sense to the outsider why that band had to end, but then it doesn’t matter much either way – the quality work continues, and that’s all that really matters. Phillips still churns out solid singer-songwriter material with folky roots-rock as its basis, his characteristic cracked and soaring croon still sounding as strong as it did back in the Buffalo heyday. What you couldn’t be forgiven for, however, is passing up Strangelet thinking that just because he’s not breaking new ground that he’s not turning in one of his best works.
Phillips took a slightly quieter route with his solo work, preferring to work in a more acoustic vein on 2004’s Virginia Creeper, it is nonetheless similiar to his previous band in most ways, feeling like a natural, more mature extension of where GLB could have gone. What works against Phillips is how subtle his music is – like that earlier album’s title, it seems to creep up on the listener by being both immediately familiar and comfortable and yet slightly too much so, so that it doesn’t stand out. Yet it winds up sneaking up and surprising by quickly becoming a favorite, effortlessly.
Strangelet nearly falls victim to the same tendency, but this time a few tunes immediately stick out and prick at listeners in just the right way. “Soft Asylum (No Way Out)” is one such tune, being the great U2 mid-tempo ballad that they’re going to wish they’d written (and Phillips is going to hope his promotion team pushes the right way.) “Fountain Of Youth” wins not just because of the tune but because of the gentle intoxication provided by the ukelele that drives the song – and it makes me glad Phillips has pursued the use of this instrument.
What makes Strangelet more immediately accessible is more variation due to songs with more aggressive stances – that’s relatively speaking, however. This is still a quiet album, in general, but distorted guitars are peppered more liberally throughout than have been in the recent past, such as “Chain Lightning,” “Johnny Guitar,” or “Raise The Spirit” which resurrects some good old loping T. Rex rhythms. The heart of the album, however, like most of what Phillips does, is in the more melancholy material – because he does that so well – and there’s plenty of that for the listener, new and old, to dive into. Strangelet might just be the most well-rounded set of music that Grant-Lee Phillips has released yet.