Moody ennui-inflected acoustic pop music is nothing new. Singer-songwriters have been baring their tortured souls to the general public for well over forty years. But just because something has already been done doesn't mean that it can't be done better. Grant-Lee Phillips combines a voice reminiscent of Donovan with the sensibilities of Jude Cole. The former front man for the band Grant Lee Buffalo, Phillips' atmospheric songs unite infectious melodies with enough forward momentum and narrative direction to make them fresh and interesting. Ten of the eleven songs on Virginia Creeper are originals. The only cover, Gram Parson's classic "Hickory Wind" illustrates Phillips' ability to stretch out a tune without letting it drag. His rendition has a particularly eerie and otherworldly ambience that transforms it into a musical ghost story.
Unlike his previous solo release, which featured Phillips playing all the instruments, a full band support him on this album. Pianist Zac Rae, violinist Eric Gorfain, bassists Sheldon Gomberg and Sebastian Steinberg, drummer Kevin Jarvis, and background vocalist Cindy Wasserman joined Phillips at Hollywood, California's Sunset Sound studios under the guiding hand of recording engineer S. Husky Hoskulds. The sonic results have a live vibrant feel that still allows the music to breathe deeply. Although the final aural results are somewhat similar to the best work of Daniel Lanois or Sarah McLachlan's producer Pierre Marchand, here the choices of particular instrumental parts rather than multiple overdubs or ambient studio effects supply the musical atmosphere.
Virginia Creeper is the sort of disc that grows on you like a fast moving weed. Even music fans that feel pop songwriting reached its apex during the 70's may find Grant-Lee Phillips songs right up their alley. He may even make them into modern music fans.