Singer-songwriter Grant-Lee Phillips came on the scene in the early 1990s in Los Angeles, performing rural-gothic, sometimes political rock in a band called Grant Lee Buffalo. Many rockers of that era have tried to make the transition to singer-songwriter music, but his has been unusually successful. Though not exactly a household name, Phillips has kept honing his music in the direction of the kind of simplicity that makes it haunt your thoughts, and he’s getting better and better. His 2004 album Virginia Creeper was a country-flavored masterpiece with a memorable portrait of Lily-A-Passion:
Hey, she’s a piratey soul,
Full of vinegar and glitter.
She’s a song of her own
From down the wrong end of the river.
At the same time, Phillips continued to develop musically on two other fronts. He has evolved into a fairly strong twelve-string guitar player–no Leo Kottke, but enough of one to incorporate the play-of-shadows quality of that instrument, so evocative of layers of the subconscious, into his music. On the other hand, he’s developed a talent for the kind of comfortable pop hook that lands songwriters’ music in television and film soundtracks–no doubt helpful when he had a recurring role as the town troubadour on the durable comedy-drama The Gilmore Girls.
Now, in mid-career, Phillips has begun to explore his Native American heritage. A registered member of the Creek tribe, he also has Blackfoot and Cherokee ancestors, some of whom walked the Trail of Tears. He has tried to put all these strands of influence together in his latest release, Walking in the Green Corn, which appeared last fall and should be well represented in his Ark show on May 17).
It’s an ambitious piece of work, not consistently successful but also unlike anything else out there. A few songs on the album are laments for what was violently destroyed, but more use Native American imagery in a contemporary way: to make sense of love, to delve into the deeper textures of the soul, to respond to feelings of imminent threat. In the last category belongs “The Straighten Outer”:
Thunder in the mountain terrace,
Lightning in the sky,
Hammer of the straighten outer,
All the world’s a rattlesnake
Waiting to unwind.
And all the world needs setting straight
In his crooked mind.
Few songwriters who use Native American ideas have managed to avoid being overly mystical, but Phillips’s new music gets there intermittently, and it is nowhere less than compelling to hear. He’s on his way to producing music that can stand with the bitter-lyrical fiction of Sherman Alexie.