New Music 2/23/18: Grant-Lee Phillips, Vance Joy

Hot off the presses: new music!  Better said, new music that is worth your time.

Grant-Lee Phillips – Widdershins – 12 songs / 38 minutes

More easy listening Americana-rock from this veteran, with just a touch of political and social commentary.

 

On his 8th solo record, Grant-Lee Phillips continues to deliver thought-provoking music that frequently soothes and occasionally rocks.  These are thoughtful and contemplative tunes from a man who has seen and done it all – including several appearances in a TV show called “Gilmore Girls”, according to Wiki.  So, there’s that.  On several of these songs, his voice reminded me distinctly of Ed Roland (Collective Soul).  Listen and see if you agree – and go back and bust out that group’s eponymous triumph if you need a refresher.

I discovered him with his previous release, 2016’s The Narrows, especially the track “No Mercy in July”.  To be honest, I have yet to go back into either his previous solo work or recordings made with his old band Grant Lee Buffalo.  This new record tells me that I probably should.  After all, if you listen to two albums from an artist and enjoy them both, there is a pretty good chance you will like the rest of the catalogue.  This is singer/songwriter fare that is consistently good, and while it may not be anything particularly remarkable, it comes with very few poor songs or cringe-worthy moments.

There are moments that show a passion for current events and a disdain for the way things are going.  On “Walk In Circles”, Grant claims that he would “rather go down fighting for the water than start another war for oil.” Later on the track he says that “at the risk of enflaming the religious, most certainly there are the loving kind; but the zealots make the rest of us suspicious, and who wants to walk on eggshells all the time”.  “Unruly Mobs” has imagery of crowds with pitchforks and torches, and allusions to queens proclaiming peasants may eat cake.

“Scared Stiff” laments how many in this country have fallen victim to fear and conjured up Patriot Act-era politics to me, with references to rabbits in a pit and being curled up in a ball.  This shorter track features some of the more raucous music on this album, with a double electric guitar attack.  One of my favorite lines is spoken here: “In the home of the brave, there are rules; you will learn how to behave, so why? That aint no way to live, scared stiff”.

“King of Catastrpohes” and “Great Acceleration” also touch on the sociopolitical realm, but this is done in a fairly subtle manner that shouldn’t polarize many listeners.  Overall, this record is worth a few listens, and while it may not be featured on any “best-of” lists, it is another solid effort.

Key Tracks : “The Wilderness”, “Walk In Circles”, “King of Catastrophes”

 

Vance Joy – Nation of Two – 13 songs / 45 minutes

Seriously simple and seriously gushy; this is also seriously good music from this talented young songwriter.

 

This album is chock full of love songs – ballads about love and the power of it, mostly sang over minimal instrumentation that at times is no more than a strummed acoustic axe.  There is not much groundbreaking here, and most of this ground has been plowed many, many times before – but it is done with a passion and earnestness that I found compelling.  To all the guys out there: your girlfriend loves this album, your mom loves this album, and if you give it a chance, you just might like it.

The album kicks off with a sample of what is to come: “Call If You Need Me” features softly spoken vocals over sparse instrumentation, with nothing but a fingerpicked acoustic guitar riff until the echo-like drums kick in towards the song’s climax.  He sings of true love, and a fear that holding on too tight will ruin things.  Simple songs about love and adoration are the order of the day for the first two-thirds of the album, mostly to great effect.

“Lay it on Me” is another love song and reminded me of a story a friend recently told me of their family tradition: when Dad had to hit the road for work, the kids would hide a small summer sausage in his luggage.  When he would find it – inevitably alone in a hotel room many miles away – he would be instantly filled with love and laughter.  Vance uses a message written on a piece of paper instead of a salty meat snack but this song is basically about  feeling loved and wanted, even a world away.  There is more at work here than most of the record, with layers of guitar, beefier drums, and even some triumphant horns.

On “Take Your Time”, Vance pleads for his lover to put off responsibilities so they can spend the day together – ground covered by Jack Johnson (“Banana Pancakes”), Talking Heads (“Love Has Come To Town”) and many others before.  The following song, “I’m With You”, is my definitive highlight of the album.  He tells a story of coasting through life until the night of a fortuitous meeting with someone that he instantly fell for, and the subsequent questioning if it is too quick to be something real: “How does it start, and when does it end; only been here for a moment but I know I want it, darlin’ I do; I’m with you, there’s nothing I won’t do, to see you shine, ill swing for the fences, Ill run to the line”.  The raw and naked emotion of this song, coupled with a relatable message, hit me like a freight train.

After a few more songs that more or less continue the theme, including the album’s weakest track (“Crashing Into You”), just when the lovey-dovey vibe is wearing thin, we get a couple of solid songs that stand out as being quite different than the rest.  “Little Boy” recalls a traumatic bicycle accident from his youth, and uses it as a parable for how our youth and experiences can shape us for years.  This track is so well written that it has much more muscle than the instrumentation should allow.

On “Bonnie & Clyde” Vance paints vivid pictures with his lyrics: moviegoers and their dry mouths caused by popcorn and soda, a police ambush of Bonnie and Clyde, and jumping into the water and coming out clean.   The not-so-subtle moral of the song is that the end could be here at any time and that we owe it to ourselves and those we love to truly live each day, speak our minds, and love strongly and without shame.  Even though this is merely simple pop song, I am finding that message to be increasingly important.

Key Tracks: “I’m With You”, “Lay It on Me”, “Bonnie & Clyde”

 

Also heard (but not recommending):

Thunderpussy – Greatest Tits­ – This 4-song EP has one solid song (“Velvet Noose”) and three others that are fine, but not worthy of much discussion.  Having seen this band perform, I can definitively say that they have better within them.  I am at least holding out hope that their upcoming LP will prove me right.  In the meantime, check one of their two Treefort sets, as they are a hoot to see live – talented and “facil para los ojos”.