By Michael Abernethy
Assistant Arts & Entertainment Editor
Grant-Lee Phillips' new album Mobilize is the folk rock equivalent to an iMac computer -- both are pieces of slick, sharp machinery in shiny, alluring packages.
A gently persistent blend of electronic music and folk rock, Phillips' second solo album runs the gambit from rock to jazz with ease, thanks in part to the singer-songwriter's sparse, haunting vocals.
Frustrated with a lack of commercial success, Phillips amicably parted ways with his former band, Grant Lee Buffalo, in 1999. And though Mobilize is truly a solo project, with Phillips handling all of the instruments and co-producing the album, the album shows virtually no signs of suspect heavy-handedness. Each track is well balanced, the arrangements almost always accentuating the songs nearly perfectly.
The album opens with Phillips envisioning an immigrant's first lonely, confused venture into America on "See America." With the song's lilting melody and interplay between warm washes of acoustic guitar and keyboard flourishes, Phillips manages to record the sound of those long, lonely, crystalline nights in December.
On the title track, Phillips builds a sonic palette that plays like a paisley nightmare. Huge bass drops like a bomb on a churning hell's choir of rattling chains, ghostly synths and a chorus of "whoa, whoas," all while Phillips insists with a desperate whine that, "You gotta mobilize."
Elsewhere, "Like A Lover" is a spare country-flavored dirge, drunk on moonshine and mandolin. In it, Phillips likens unrequited love to a prison where "no warden's ever held that key" and "nobody but her can ever set me free."
Throughout Mobilize, Phillips' vocals take on as many personalities as his eclectic songsmithery will allow. He yearns in a breathy whisper on the sunset-stained lament, "Humankind."
On a few tracks, such as the glam-flavored anthem "We All Get A Taste" and the invitingly funky "Sadness Soot," Phillips sounds like a restrained version of the late Michael Hutchence of INXS. And on the final track, "April Chimes," he takes on the persona of a confident Elliott Smith, with his rambling falsetto harmonies.
Phillips' lyrics are both strangely immediate and poetically oblique all at once. On "Love's A Mystery," for instance, Phillips muses, "Another sunny day wash/Soaking up the radar/Antennas on the garage/Whispers on the airwaves."
It seems obvious that Phillips is speaking of the runaround that love can give us and the mixed signals we receive, but he communicates this message in such beautifully broken language.
Usually when established artists mix electronic music and folky-pop, the lyrics get lost in the transition -- Smashing Pumpkins' Adore was a failed experiment because the powerhouse rock band couldn't expand its sound into the world of bleeps and buzzes.
Rather than mask his talent, Phillips' experimentation works due to his versatile writing and keen ear for production.
For all of its virtues, Mobilize isn't always an easy listen. Each song has its own unique personality, and just like a real relationship, it takes time for each track to reveal itself. And even then, a couple of tracks still only manage to rank somewhere between average and good.
"Lazily Drowning" is one of these. Rather than offer a killer hook like "Beautiful Dreamers" or a stellar lyric the way "Sleepless Lake" does, it feels a bit tedious and slightly repetitious in its final minutes.
But even one or two sub-par tracks cannot diminish the power and beauty of Phillips' smokey melodic gems. When Mobilize finally sinks in, it becomes the perfect chill-out soundtrack.
The Arts & Entertainment Editor can be reached at email@example.com.
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