GRANT-LEE PHILlIPS with DAVID LOVERING at the Horseshoe (370 Queen West), tonight (Thursday, August 30). $12.50. 416-598-4753.
for a musician, nothing says "stalled career" quite like an Internet-only CD release -- except maybe a recurring cameo on a cable network television drama. Grant-Lee Phillips has both, but even with two strikes against him, it would be premature to count out the former Grant Lee Buffalo frontman who upset Anthony Kiedis and Eddie Vedder in Rolling Stone's male-vocalist-of-the-year runoff back in 95.Phillips is also a much better songwriter than either of them, even if the records he's put out haven't shown it off. Yet for all his vocal prowess, crafty compositional expertise and famous friends like Michael Stipe, Phillips has largely stayed on the fringes as a cult curiosity.
It's difficult to say why, but part of it is that Phillips isn't a shrewd self-promoter. That's not to suggest he needs to spend more time glad-handing. The problem is in the presentation.
Take the goofy photocopier-quality image of himself made up like Napoleon that he selected for the cover of his great new Mobilize (Zoë/Rounder) disc, for example. It's not the sort of thing that indicates the emotional depth and beauty of his latest collection of songs. And then there's the album's song sequencing, which foolishly buries the three best tunes at the very end, where they're most likely to be missed.
"I guess my sense of sequencing an album is somewhat inspired by how a film is built," reasons Phillips from L.A., where he's been rehearsing for the upcoming tour with pianist Phil Parla, bassist Bill Bork and drummer Kevin Jarvis. "The broad statement comes at the end, followed by something pastoral while the credits roll. To me, Sleepless Lake and April Chimes are more serene, and I liked the idea of having them at the end."
Unfortunately, what works for a captive film audience doesn't really apply to record construction, where you're dealing with shrinking listener attention spans. Most people won't wade through an entire hour-long disc to decide whether it's worth picking up. I've had to convince a couple of Grant Lee Buffalo fans who'd given up on Mobilize after hearing the first four tracks to go back and check out how it ends. It makes you wonder if Phillips realizes when he's hit on something special.
"I know I'm still playing certain songs that I wrote very quickly years ago, while others that I've laboured over I'm not. Even as the writer, it's difficult to say which of my songs are significant or may have a lasting quality.
"There are a couple of songs, Fuzzy and Mockingbirds, that have risen to the top of my own charts, and I guess I had a feeling in the back of my mind that they were apt to stand out. But really, only time will tell."