GRANT LEE BUFFALO
For many years this LA folk-rock trio was impenetrable as an iron triangle: guitarist Grant Lee Phillips spun cryptic tales out of America’s past and the murky corridors of the heart, then bounced them off eclectic percussionist Joey Peters and producer-bassist Paul Kimble. This setup helped the band preserve an endearingly peculiar vision in a genre that too readily devolves into Byrds-ian retro or the crowd-pleasing globalspeak of R.E.M. But rather than trying to re-create that insularity when Kimble left the fold in 1996 (after the band’s melodious but slightly esoteric third album, Copperopolis), Peters and Phillips left the gate open. And on the new Jubilee (Slash/Warner Brothers), they ushered in Dan Rothchild to play bass, Paul Fox (who’s produced XTC and Robyn Hitchcock) to sit behind the glass, and a menagerie of guests–including Hitchcock and Michael Stipe–to fill out the songs. To counterbalance this relative excess, Phillips has made a strategic retreat toward the sort of hard-rocking Americana that first brought the band critical acclaim. “Seconds” hangs on the sort of creepy falsetto hook that’s become his calling card, and “Truly, Truly,” the record’s first single, is an ardent love song with a simple but exhilarating chorus. Jubilee does its share of FM pandering, too: “APB,” with its mammoth guitar, slamming drums, and omnipresent tambourine, might as well have come off R.E.M.’s assembly line. But “Fine How’d Ya Do,” the rousing midpoint of the record, is a perfect compromise between the band’s earlier idiosyncrasies and its new, more collaborative practices. A pump organ chugs away at the verses, punctuated by a shimmering guitar lick, while Phillips’s distant vocals conjure florid images of a 19th-century parade; the chorus, which appropriates an old-fashioned turn of phrase about life’s inequities, comes washing down like the Johnstown flood. Wednesday, 7:30 PM, Park West, 322 W. Armitage; 773-929-5959 or 312-559-1212. J.R. JONES
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Matthew Welch.