Review: Grant-Lee Phillips – “nineteeneighties”

Most music fans have a special affinity for the songs of their youth. For me, that’s the music of the 80’s… a decade which, for better or worse, seems to have become the official “retro” era of the new millennium. It’s the decade that introduced us to MTV, compact discs, the King of Pop, Madonna, U2, rap music, sampling, parental warning labels, Live Aid and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

While I enjoyed a certain amount of the mainstream music of the 80’s, I also made a point of seeking out “alternative” music… artists whose music seemed to reside on the fringes of popular culture and was rarely played on the radio. I bought cassettes by bands like New Order, Echo and the Bunnymen and REM. I saw acts like the Cure and the Pixies in concert. I traded mixtapes with friends and discovered the Smiths, Psychedelic Furs and Joy Division.

If “nineteeneighties” is any indication, I’d guess Grant-Lee Phillips was doing the same.

Mainstream America is most likely to recognize (if at all) Grant-Lee Phillips as the “Town Troubadour” from television’s “Gilmore Girls.” His musical career, however, actually began in the early 1990’s as the front man for alt-rock band Grant Lee Buffalo. Chances are you’re not familiar with Phillips, in a band or as a solo artist. That’s entirely appropriate, since his latest CD is a collection of covers of lesser-known alternative songs from the 1980’s.

One of my rules for cover songs is that if they don’t make something new out of something old, they’re not worth doing. Thankfully, Phillips has done just that, going acoustic and infusing this set of tunes with a sort of coffeehouse-folk vibe. Songs like “Wave of Mutilation” and “The Killing Moon” (originally by the Pixies and Echo and the Bunnymen, respectively) now sound more sinister in title than in performance. In other words, this is what 80’s alternative songs sound like when they grow up.

Of course, how well this music holds up to reinterpretation is also a testament to the quality of the original songwriting. Robyn Hitchcock’s “I Often Dream of Trains” here becomes Dylan-esque. New Order’s “Age of Consent” is reborn as a six-string Americana jangle. The afore mentioned “Wave of Mutilation” takes on a surprising tropical swagger. A toy piano plays the melody on the chorus of “Boys Don’t Cry,” no doubt inspired by the Cure’s own MTV Unplugged performance. The Smiths’ “Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me” closes the album as a sorrowful ode, quietly heartbreaking in contrast to the elegant cacophony of the original.

For fans of the alternative 80’s, Grant-Lee Phillips’ new CD is a nostalgic sampler of the decade’s lesser-known music. For fans of today’s adult alternative music (artists like Pete Yorn, Ben Folds, Ryan Adams and others heard on XM satellite radio’s “The Loft”), it’s a mellow but satisfying unplugged session that just may inspire you to seek out the plugged-in originals… which I also highly recommend!


This review originally appeared in the Sept/Oct 2006 issue of TC Style magazine