This band has an evocative sound, and group leader Grant Lee Phillips is an accomplished storyteller who feels equally at home discussing romance (“Jupiter and Teardrop”), New Orleans voodoo (“Dixie Drug Store”), or cleverly recasting the story of Little Red Riding Hood with the boy who cried wolf (“Soft Wolf Tread”). Fuzzy offers a nice mix of acoustic folk and loud rock, as the band (which also includes drummer Joey Peters and producer/piano/bassist Paul Kimble) provides a rich sonic backdrop that to me evokes the vast Midwest and all its mysteries. The devastatingly beautiful “Fuzzy” and “Dixie Drug Store,” which somehow combines the best elements of Dixieland jazz and Zooropa era U2 (the latter primarily by virtue of Phillips’ sweeping falsetto, which is also a highlight of “Fuzzy” and throughout the album really) were the instant classics here, or at least they should ‘ve been. The lively acoustic opener “The Shining Hour,” the alternately mellow and explosive “Jupiter and Teardrop,” the effectively atmospheric (perhaps the word that best describes this album and band) yet melodic “Wish You Well,” the simply strummed (and also atmospheric) “The Hook,” and the anthemic rocker “America Snoring” are other impressive highlights. Perhaps Phillips could be more generous with his hooks elsewhere, but this was still a fine first album from band whose unique sound feels both timeless and contemporary. R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe was certainly impressed, calling this “the best album of the year hand’s down.”
Mighty Joe Moon (Slash/Reprise ’94) Rating: A-
On this stellar follow up to their highly regarded debut, the band has further expanded their unique sound by letting banjos, dobros, cellos, harmonicas, mandolins, and pump organs add texture to their atmospheric base (they've also added more percussive devices and harmony vocals). Mr. Phillips remains a fine storyteller who is able to create his own alternate world that the listener easily enters, while the band paints his pictures with broad, panoramic strokes. Historical (and current) references abound that are both obvious and obscure; it’s fun trying to figure them out, and these thoughtful allusions were one of the main reasons why the band was so popular with critics and on college campuses. There’s more loud rock to the “folk rock” equation this time out, as evidenced by the muscular “Lone Star Song,” “Sing Along,” and the intense “Demon Called Deception.” However, these songs’ howling guitars stand in direct contrast to extremely pretty entries such as “Mockingbirds,” “Mighty Joe Moon,” and “Honey Don’t Think,” as the band’s mellower side still usually wins out (and some songs, like “Lady Godiva and Me,” show off both sides of the band). Perhaps Grant Lee Buffalo are still too often atmospheric without actually being memorable, but other simple but effective pleasures such as “It’s The Life” ultimately makes Mighty Joe Moon another highly satisfying listen. Note: The band’s next two albums, 1996’s Copperopolis (another quality effort but probably their most difficult album to fully embrace) and 1998’s Jubilee (their most rocking and stripped down album, minus Kimble), are also worthwhile if over-long, but I still prefer the first two albums, which I listened to a lot when they first came out. Like many people I kind of forgot about these guys over the years, but in revisiting these albums recently I’m happy to say that they hold up very well. In short, Grant Lee Buffalo was a very good (and extremely underrated) ‘90s band.
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