CD Review of Nineteeneighties by Grant-Lee Phillips

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Released: 2006
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This album's one of those enigmas wrapped in a conundrum disguised as a riddle. First off, a cover album is the ultimate vanity project – who would be so pretentious as to interpret someone else's original compositions, as if they were saying, "I think my way's better"? Yet, a cover album can be a tribute to the songs an artist loves, an honest acknowledgement that he or she didn't pop out of the womb a star – that the musicians who came before them helped shape their sound. Then there's the matter of covering beloved hits…how can you mess with success and retool a song that had already found its way into fans' psyche as it was before?

With all that as a backdrop, former Grant Lee Buffalo lead singer and creative force Grant-Lee Phillips gives us his mellowed-down electro-acoustic interpretations of his favorite 1980s alternative cuts. Some of it works, some of it doesn't. F'rinstance, the Pixies' "Wave of Mutilation" was one of those deals where the sharp, caustic Black Francis guitar contrasted with his smooth vocal made an indelible signature – and Grant-Lee's Hawaiian slide guitar stylings and slowdown tempo just butchers the song. The Cure's "Boys Don't Cry" had only Robert Smith's whining and a hard backbeat going for it in the first place – give it to Phillips, who slows it down, adds lush harmonies and an interesting, thoughtful arrangement that includes a toy piano, and it's obvious the song was a pretty weak composition to start with, and it gets ground to milquetoast here pretty quickly.

However, on his covers of mellower, more poppy cuts such as R.E.M.'s "South Central Rain," Echo & the Bunnymen's "The Killing Moon," and the Church's "Under the Milky Way," Phillips' reinterpretations sound pretty cool. In fact, I daresay in some cases his new spin on tired old songs inspired me to dust off the old classics I myself retired because they'd gotten monotonous through too many plays. Indeed, Phillips proves that under all that messed-up hair, weird t-shirts, and eyeliner, these guys wrote some pretty catchy pop cuts back in the day.

Bottom line: If you like this guy's previous work, you'll eat this up. If you're an old fan of the '80s alternative scene, preview this before you buy it. Or better yet, give it to your favorite 1980s fan for Christmas – they'll love it if they aren't the ones paying for it, I guarantee.

~Mojo Flucke, PhD