May 212020

In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!

When the indie band Grant Lee Buffalo burst on the scene in the early 1990s, they seemed destined for stardom. Emerging from a residency at L.A.’s Largo nightclub, the fresh young band got snatched up by a major label or two, and embarked on world tours with more seasoned pros–first R.E.M., and later Pearl Jam. Rolling Stone magazine pronounced the guy behind it all, Grant Lee Phillips, the male vocalist of the year in 1994, and Michael Stipe practically started a GLP fan club.

But instead of parlaying the attention into fame and fortune, Phillips grew disillusioned with the star-maker machinery, and the pressure to deliver instantly likable hits. His songs needed time to warm up, he said, like an old car or an old tube amp. By 2000 he had disbanded Grant Lee Buffalo and dissolved their Warner Records contract. He got to work as plain old Grant Lee Phillips. Allying himself with independent labels (Rounder, Yep Roc), he’s been recording and touring on smaller scales ever since. His work earns the critical adoration, and he doesn’t go through gyrations to transform his sound or his image. He has a knack for interesting side hustles, like composing for film and television, and acting, too. You might have seen him on seasons 1-7 of the Gilmore Girls, in the role of the wandering troubadour.

Cover Me readers will take extra interest in Phillips’ 2006 covers album, nineteeneighties. As you guessed, it’s a collection of songs from the ’80s—but it’s not hits of the ’80s, mind you. In fact, the artists he covers are not particularly iconic bands of the period, either: when you think “the ’80s,” it’s unlikely that Robyn Hitchcock, Nick Cave, or the Pixies spring to mind. Or The Church, The Cure, or The Psychedelic Furs, for that matter. If these bands do define the decade for you, then you need this album. If those bands never quite appealed to you, then you really need this album, because you missed some great music, and Phillips may be your ticket in. Especially if the ’80s seemed to you a little heavy on production—Phillips avoids that sort of excess, and imparts a human warmth to the songs, using mostly an acoustic guitar to drive things along.

The following covers are from all periods of Phillips’ career; there are studio releases, live shows, and one-off projects that even his fans may not know about. We’ve queued them up chronologically by release date of the original song.

Grant Lee Buffalo–In My Room (Beach Boys cover)

In these times of lockdown and social isolation, this Beach Boys classic has become relevant once more. Grant Lee Buffalo’s version aired on an early episode of the tv show Friends. Phillips, whose vocal work sounds like Eddie Vedder here, creates an arrangement with crunchy guitars in place of Brian Wilson’s lush vocal orchestration on the original. The vulnerable mood of the Beach Boys is painted over with a more empowered sound. It’s a timeless song however anyone plays it, suitable for good times and bad.

Grant Lee Phillips–Here Comes the Sun (Beatles cover)

This treatment of George Harrison’s classic is practically a note for note copy of the original (well, minus the Moog synthesizer, minus the contributions of the other Beatles, and minus George Martin’s orchestral additions). Phillips gets the finger-picking about right on one of Harrison’s trickier finger-picked numbers. Vocally, Phillips has a smooth time of it too. Of all the covers in the list, this one may have the least personal stamp on it, as if Phillips felt that reducing it to voice and guitar was enough of a twist. You won’t find this one on any of Phillip’s albums; it appears on a 2004 “all-American” tribute to The Beatles from MOJO Magazine.

Grant Lee Buffalo–We’ve Only Just Begun (Carpenters cover)

This song was a big hit in the so-called “easy listening” category, circa 1970. Written by the team of Roger Nichols and Paul Williams, it began life as a jingle for a small bank. The Grant Lee Buffalo cover is the final track on a 1994 Carpenters tribute album, If I Were a Carpenter, which also included the likes of Sonic Youth and Shonen Knife.

In Phillips’ version, the song opens with uneasy listening: an ominous and unusual sonic landscape rises up, with backwards-playing instrument loops and other studio trappings, and no clear structure. But all at once the chaos sorts itself out and the proper song emerges; it is revealed to be a faithful take on the original after all. Phillips moves through the verses, refrain, and the bridge in un-ironic and reverent fashion, and the effect is emotional. He sings falsetto to reach those aching high notes that Karen Carpenter hit so effortlessly. But then the song ends with an ominous piano chord—more uneasy listening. The opening and closing dissonance makes a strong statement, and leaves you to wonder what it’s supposed to suggest.

Grant Lee Buffalo–For the Turnstiles (Neil Young cover)

This selection is from Neil Young’s 1974 On the Beach album. If you agree with critic Robert Christgau that Young’s work in the period consists of “whiny thinness,” this live cover is for you. It’s got heft.

Certainly Young intended to produce a rough and unadorned album—“For the Turnstiles” consists simply of banjo and dobro, and it sounds like a first take (and what a great take it was). But Grant Lee Buffalo brings more body and power to the song; they add some dynamics—peaks and valleys—and the electric bass and traps give it a more dramatic rendering. The 12-string guitar and the low-key harmony vocal keep the country flavor of the original intact, while the drummer’s brushwork provides energy without overpowering the vocals. There’s not much whiny thinness in Phillips’ voice, more like a dark, whiskey-flavored fullness. Tasty.

Grant Lee Phillips–Ashes to Ashes (David Bowie cover)

In 2006, Phillips made a studio recording of David Bowie’s 1980 hit. Unfortunately it was a stilted collaboration with the Section quartet; it falls flat compared this live version. It’s Phillips performing solo in New York City within weeks of Bowie’s 2016 death. The timing may account for the deeper feeling and assertiveness going on in the live show compared to the studio production. You sense that he’s feeding off the audience energy, or that both performer and audience are still absorbing the loss of a hero.

Grant Lee Phillips–Under the Milky Way (The Church cover)

“Under the Milky Way” was a 1988 signature hit for the Australian band, The Church. Phillips revised it for his nineteeneighties release. He dials back the intensity and the tempo of the original; he adjusts the hypnotic chord progression so that it works for acoustic guitar and for his own unhurried mood. Add a little tambourine and triangle, subtle vocal harmonies on the chorus, and it’s a sweet translation. The song isn’t too soft, though: a heavily-distorted guitar seethes in the gauzy background; it invokes the menace that The Church baked into their original.

When The Church released their own updated all-acoustic arrangement of the song in 2004, they approached it in pretty much the way Grant Lee Phillips did. It’s technically possible that Phillips heard that version ahead of his recording. But judging by his methods on the rest of nineteeneighties, it’s more likely a case of kindred spirits thinking alike.

Grant Lee Phillips–City of Refuge (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds cover)

As a closing move, we’ll follow The Church with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds—back to back Australian bands for the win!

Although Phillips is covering Nick Cave’s 1988 “City of Refuge,” it’s a cover of a cover, and officially we are dealing with a traditional tune. Cave said Blind Willie Johnson’s recording from 1928,“(I’m Gonna Run to) The City of Refuge,” was the inspiration behind his iteration of the song. But Johnson was not the first to record it, either. Other artists to cover it include Elvis Presley, and C.J. Johnston (whose 1965 version appeared on the True Detective soundtrack).

Nick Cave’s take on the song is in the Tom Waits vein, mixing the ecstatic with the chaotic. It’s unlikely that a tuner, metronome, or click-track made any appearance in this effort. Phillips, who seems genetically more orderly and good-natured than Nick Cave, cleans up the song and straightens its tie. The song still has a harsh bite, though, and a demonically howling harmonica conveys the fire and brimstone punishment promised in the lyrics.

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