Country-rock class from Rolling Stone's one-time "best male vocalist"
In the close-to-five years since Grant Lee Buffalo, Phillips has toned down the flourishes around that sumptuous voice. Mobilize (2001) was almost a completely solo album, and this, despite bringing in an elegant ensemble of musicians, is his sparsest yet. Not that it’s bleak, as that might suggest. Virginia Creeper winds its way through delicious country-rock melodies, putting its faith in the power of the song, Grant’s touching timbre set permanently on deep and rich, like Jim Reeves or Perry Como. Arguably slight at first, it rewards repeat listening as its seductive, heartfelt stories unfurl. Beginning with the warm, mournful “Mona Lisa”?”you’re the last of your kind”?it carries a strong sense of nostalgia and a love of characters and narrative, both personal and far-reaching. It weaves and climbs, in Phillips’ own words, “like a slow but persistent vine”. Among collaborators, chosen to “respond on their feet without rehearsing for weeks on end,” are former Soul Coughing man Sebastian Steinberg, multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion and harmony vocalist Cindy Wasserman. They too weave, and subtly gel, violinist Eric Gorfain pushing the pathos. “Lily-A-Passion”, “Calamity Jane”, “Josephine Of The Swamps”?the titles are a litany of female names, but rarely utilised in the easily emotive way you’d expect, drawing on 1950s mythology, Native American lore, and in the case of “Jane”, discomfort at the current “war on terror”. “Always Friends” is gut-tugging. In the dark-hearted “Far End Of The Night”, Phillips pines that “time hangs like a noose”. Wasserman dovetails beautifully with his stoic brooding on the closing cover of Gram Parsons’ “Hickory Wind”. Virginia Creeper isn’t a record to beat its chest, Phillips claiming he “left the electric guitar in its cage this time, focusing on one aspect of my writing and personality rather than trying to do The White Album every time I move.” As such, it hums its way, patiently, into your hungry places.