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Record Review


In the now-defunct poetic folk-rock combo Grant Lee Buffalo, singer/songwriter Grant Lee Phillips indulged various muses with a come-one, come-all gusto. By the band's 1998 swan song -- the ambitious, restless Jubilee -- Phillips had hit a remarkably effortless balance of assured guitar rock, winsome Americana and achingly wistful ballads (most notably 1994's minor alt-rock hit "Mockingbirds"). In contrast, Phillips has gradually reined in his more sweeping musical statements as a solo artist. That culminates in Virginia Creeper, an often-gorgeous record that plants its flag firmly in the Adult Alternative format. The album eschews Buffalo's playful musical daring for a solid, if stolid, collection of literate, pastoral and homogenous folk-pop.

Creeper unfolds at an unhurried pace, luxuriating in Phillips' rich, resonant voice, backed by a serene assemblage of rustic instruments (cello, pedal steel, mandolin). The effect is enveloping on pleasant, melodic numbers such as the charming single "Mona Lisa," amiable "Dirty Secret" and the elegant, epic "Josephine of the Swamps."

Phillips delivers every line with big-hearted intimacy, his warm delivery helping sell slight sentiments like "Always Friends" and the earnest yet awkward "Lily-A-Passion" as if they were world-wise romantic confidences. But Creeper is so completely drenched in tasteful atmospherics that it's numbing. By the closing song, a disarmingly idyllic cover of Gram Parsons' "Hickory Wind," our admiration of Phillips' talents is more reserved than visceral. Like the beautiful girl no one will approach, Creeper proves too pretty for its own good.

Grant Lee Phillips plays the Echo Lounge Wed., March 10. 8 p.m. $12.

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