The Strange Matter Of Mr. Grant-Lee Phillips
Hurtling across our solar system at nearly a million miles per hour, a microscopic mite of rather mysterious matter smashes into Earth, rocketing straight through the solid ice sheet of Antarctica. Seismographs around the globe go haywire. Twenty-six seconds later, on the other side of the equator, the speeding speck explodes from the floor of the Indian Ocean off the coast of Sri Lanka, continuing its journey through the universe unabated. It happened on October 22, 1993. Or so some scientists speculate.
Strangelets. Subatomic quark-related clusters of old school Big-Bang-style strange matter, so dense and volatile that even the most diminutive dot could theoretically swallow the planet up whole. Experts have yet to definitively prove the existence of such a quirky quark, but a much more tangible namesake has just burst into our atmosphere in the sonic form of Strangelet, the fifth solo release from acclaimed singer songwriter Grant-Lee Phillips.
Described by the former Grant Lee Buffalo ringmaster as a "record for strange times," Strangelet packs a deft emotional wallop, delving deep into the inner conflagrations of the soul ("Runaway") and the outer combativeness of human nature ("Chain Lightnin'"), while at the same time reveling in the troubled essence of rock and roll ("Johnny Guitar"). All in all, it's a massive amount of beautifully strange energy crammed into the confines of a compact disc. “The thought of all this strange matter floating around out there. That there’s more under the stars than we can ever imagine – black holes, white dwarfs…” Phillips reflects with a laugh, "It's kind of nice, actually...."
If the end of everything as we know it doesn't sound all that "nice" to you, perhaps you're unaware of Grant-Lee Phillips' lyrical knack for divining light from the darkness, extracting motivation from misery, and embracing the general life-affirming optimism that when one door closes, another inevitably opens. His cathartic, negative-to-positive alchemy works in subtle measure throughout the unfolding of Strangelet's twelve tracks, smoothly blending tales of heartache, conflict, and loss with stories of love, hope, and redemption. It's a work that's essentially grounded in the concept of confronting reality, relinquishing fear of the unknown, and refusing to be destroyed by things you can't see, things you can't control, and things that may not even exist. “We're constantly bombarded with 'Be afraid of this, be afraid of that.' I love the fact that even in the world of physics there's a whole terminology to convey the notion that things often behave in irrational and odd ways. There’s chaos in them thar’ hills.”
Phillips took this notion of inevitable unpredictability to heart even in the actual construction of the new album. While drummer Bill Rieflin and R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck lent their respective talents through scheduled studio sessions in Seattle, Phillips recorded the bulk of the material alone on his homegrown setup in Los Angeles, on the fly, whenever the urge happened to strike. “I've learned how to coax these things along, to leave it teetering on the edge, how to booby trap my own work so there's bound to be an accident." The end result of this semi-controlled spontaneity is Phillips' most personal and revealing work to date, a conscious exploration of the unconscious, one that sparkles with the honesty and the intimacy of a diary or a sketchbook. The singer agrees. “I've become more and more protective of that moment when an idea pops into your head, when the initial spark contains all the gesture you need, all the implications that are intended.”
A man of many proverbial hats indeed, Phillips incorporated any instrument within his reach during the course of recording - guitars, bass, piano, organ, baritone ukulele, the list goes on and on. It would be remiss not to relate a bit of his resume at this point, so let it be said that he's an accomplished visual artist, a seasoned composer forfilm and television, a magician, a poet, and a former roof-tarrer, as well as a crack actor - often seen serenading the streets of Stars Hollow in his recurring role as The Town Troubadour on The Gilmore Girls.
But, back to the subject at hand, it's simply Phillips' longtime status as a diehard, passionate fan of high-octane rock and roll that fuels the engagingly eclectic sounds of Strangelet. Arriving on the heels of nineteeneighties, Phillips' cover-versions-only ode to some of his favorite acts of said decade, the new record continues to deliver nods to many of the artists who have inspired him, though this time in a much more subtle and far-reaching manner. Take a dash of hypnotic Sonic Youth and a pinch of ragged X, then blend it with a dose of John Lennon's plaintive honesty and a touch of Neil Young's twisted Americana. Add a sprinkle of soaring U2 and jangling R.E.M., then mix it with the toe-tapping rhythms of T-Rex and the raw rumblings of Gene Vincent. By no means is Strangelet's recipe that simple, limited, or obvious, however, so you've gotta give the top chef some serious credit. "I suppose I'm wearing my influences loudly on this album," smiles Phillips.
Arguably the most musically diverse work of his career, Strangelet somehow manages to be beautifully sparse and lavishly lush all at the same time - the latter quality accentuated by contributions from Los Angeles string outfit The Section Quartet. And while Phillips continues to relish the acoustic leanings of his previous solo works, Strangelet also features a triumphant return to the plug, with the course of such songs as "Runaway," "Soft Asylum," and "So Much" being propelled along by driving electric guitars.
Again, all in all, Strangelet is a very large number of ideas and inspirations encapsulated in a very small space. "It's not intentionally cryptic or abstracted," says Phillips of the record, "it's sort of how the song comes to me, kind of backwards and in many pieces. It arrives in that fractured form. In that sense maybe the album is a response to a fractured world as well - politically speaking, environmentally speaking. I do think Strangelet is a record for strange times, where there's currently a lapse of meaning. It's also a chronicle of my own personal state over the past couple of years, just longing for some sort of piece of mind..."
So at the end of the day, just forget all you've read here and simply listen. And say the word out loud: Strangelet.
"It sounds much better than it reads," laughs Phillips. "Microsoft Word spell check always asks me, 'Do you mean strangulate?' Mmmm...no...that's not what I mean..."