In the years since the demise of his late, great trio Grant Lee Buffalo, Grant Lee Phillips has dabbled in acting (“Gilmore Girls”), film scoring (Easy) and haiku (don’t ask), releasing several pleasant, if increasingly aimless, solo records along the way. His latest, Virginia Creeper, is his best yet, an almost wholly acoustic offering that feels at once focused and unhurried.
Virginia Creeper demonstrates Phillips’ gift for simple, indelible melodies better than anything since the early days of Grant Lee Buffalo. Indeed, anyone conversant with Phillips’ old band will find much that’s familiar here, as Phillips has neatly condensed ten years’ worth of familiar GLB lyrical themes down to the basics: mysterious women (“Lily-A-Passion”, “Josephine Of The Swamps”) and early western iconography (“Calamity Jane”), all done in sepia tones.
Phillips wisely leaves out the gloomy apocalyptic imagery that he often laid on with a trowel during Grant Lee Buffalo’s pre-millennial heyday, concentrating instead on simple, midtempo country-pop numbers without a hook (or a present-day reference) in sight. Amiable, uncluttered and basic, Virginia Creeper is the sort of solo album Phillips (aided here by an unobtrusive backing band that includes Jon Brion and Greg Leisz) should have been making all along.
Though Phillips takes a fleeting stab at a single (“Mona Lisa”, one of the few actually catchy tracks here), a cover (a respectful and fine version of Gram Parsons’ “Hickory Wind”), and the sort of ripping period epic at which he excels (“Susanna Little”, about a Native American woman “chained to a log in a torn white dress/Shakin’ wild-eyed to the ground”), the best tracks here are the smallest in scale.