Zoe Recordings, 2004
REVIEW BY: Sean McCarthy
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/06/2004
Grant-Lee Phillips has weathered the '90s alternative explosion, dissolved his brand, Grant Lee Buffalo and did some smart label shopping. His latest solo album, Virginia Creeper, is not a grand departure from his previous recordings. His voice is still his unmistakable selling point in addition to his character sketches.
The first few listens of Virginia Creeper were a bit of a letdown -- it was the type of album that NPR programs would hock during segment breaks; an album by a great trailblazer in the '90s, now settling comfortably into adulthood. Indeed, some of the songs seemed to have a maddening "sameness" quality that grew tiresome on the first listen. Still, he's Grant-Lee Phillips. Make the mistake of initially writing off one of his albums and run the risk of having that album turn into an unheralded classic.
As a songwriter, Phillips leans heavily toward concrete, organic imagery. Take the song, "Josephine of the Swamps." The song opens with "Oh the slough winds all serpentine / Full of black delta peat / Yellow bronze grapes of muscadine / Growing wild and deep." One particular character sketch, "Susanna Little" has Phillips lament over an old piano "Gone 'fore I ever arrived / Questions that stream / Through my own creek blood / The odyssey of your life." Blood and decay run rampant throughout Virginia Creeper.
The visuals of decay, combined with the prevailing use of stringed instruments (violins, upright bass, ukulele), make Virginia Creeper a great "autumn" record. That said, the album almost sounds too ripe; you have a feeling like some of the album's rewards can only be relished by listening to it during the right season.
Some of the songs could have definitely used some of the dynamics of traditional rock that made albums like Mighty Joe Mean so … well, dynamic. Phillips comes close to rocking out with "Mona Lisa" and "Calamity Jane," but for the most part, Virginia Creeper is a mellow endeavor. The last half of the album can be a bit frustrating to get through, but it's well worth it for the Gram Parsons cover "Hickory Wind."
Virginia Creeper is not an album for today's times. You have to give the album a few listens to fully unveil its layers. It requires you to read the liner notes to appreciate Phillips' writing talents. It's one of those albums that you have to meet halfway. It's a bit of a chore, but well worth the effort.