The roots of Los Angeles’ Grant Lee Buffalo stretch back to 1985 when former film student Grant-Lee Phillips and Jeffrey Clark started Shiva Burlesque. (They’d earlier been in a band called the Torn Boys.) Phillips specialized in “psychedelic acoustic 12-string,” feedback included, while Clark’s Jim Morrison-influenced vocals were the stuff of high sweeping drama. They added upright bassist James Brenner and drummer/marimba player Joey Peters; by ’87, the band’s self-titled debut on Nate Starkman & Son (home to numerous other California eccentrics) was in the bins.
Shiva Burlesque screams “art rock” from its colorful gatefold sleeve iconography (a reproduction of a painting by Deborah Lawrence). The music itself is an ambitious mélange of styles and moods. There’s atmospheric, Echo and the Bunnymen-style pop with self-conscious poetry subbing for rock lyrics (“The Lonesome Death of Shadow Morton”), buoyant, shimmering folk-rock using Phillips’ 12-string as its signature (“Indian Summer”)-even the occasional foray into stream-of-consciousness, post-punk freneticism (the trumpet-flecked “Train Mystery”). The inevitable press comparisons to the Doors aside, it’s an impressive debut.
The second Shiva album, Mercury Blues (which suffered indie-label crib death anyway), lacks the subtle majesty of its predecessor’s production. While the material is energetic enough — pointing the band in a more straightforward rock direction (Phillips’ guitar is far more prominent, and Clark’s vocals adopt an almost Tim Buckley-like fervor) — the overall impact is undermined by the flat sound. Shiva Burlesque broke up shortly thereafter. (An unauthorized reissue of Shiva Burlesque appeared in the UK in 1995; there’s a chance of a proper American reissue for both on the horizon.)
Phillips busied himself writing songs and recording a solo album that was never released. By ’92, he and Peters, along with bassist/pianist Paul Kimble, were rehearsing as Grant Lee Buffalo. The trio’s debut, Fuzzy, produced by Kimble and partially recorded in his 16-track garage studio, packs a startling one-two punch. Its rich, three-dimensional production manages to locate the trio all over the listening space in almost orchestral fashion, with Phillips’ combination of acoustic 12-string strums and snaky, Frippish electric leads lending particular melodic/textural depth. It also signals the emergence of a major new songwriting talent, as Phillips spins evocative tales (frequently in a swooping falsetto) involving outlaws on the run, lovers lost amid the cultural debris of New Orleans and the East Village and the Closing of the American Dream as narrated by Pocahontas, the Lone Ranger (“Grace”) or Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf (“Soft Wolf Tread”).
As picturesque as Fuzzy is, Mighty Joe Moon is a cinematic revelation, brimming with stylistic atmosphere and sheer musical invention. Once again, Phillips is cast as a shamanistic storyteller: “Lady Godiva and Me,” “Last Days of Tecumseh.” Wordsmithery aside, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the record’s sonic wizardry — kudos again to producer Kimble — since each new spin of the disc is like tilting a painting at a different angle in order to pick up on the artist’s brush stroke variations. The waltz-like “Sing Along” is initially a heavy, feedback-strewn rocker; listen closely and discern delicate percussion and keyboard touches and choirlike vocal harmonies deep in the mix. Similarly, “Mockingbirds” is a textural masterpiece offering a wealth of guitar tones, an ancient pump organ, cello and multi-tracked vocals (in places, a falsetto duet!). A rare disc whose creators are clearly under the spells once cast by Phil Spector, George Martin, Brian Wilson and Jack Nitzsche.
In England, Grant Lee Buffalo’s albums have received star treatment, promoted via numerous EPs loaded with non-album material. Several tracks recorded live in London during an October ’94 tour appear on the American six-song Honey Don’t Think EP. These tunes amply demonstrate that the band is no studio fluke, as it easily reinvents its sound for the stage in slightly tougher but no less intoxicating terms.
Late ’95 saw the release of a “soundtrack” tie-in for TV’s Friends; it includes a cover of the Beach Boys’ “In My Room” that showcases Grant Lee Buffalo’s dead-on massed vocal harmonies in tribute to Brian Wilson. Then, in mid-’96, the band released its third album, Copperopolis, named for a tiny town in California’s Sierra Nevada foothills. Again produced by Kimble and including guests Ralph Carney (sax, clarinet) and Greg Leisz (pedal steel), the record confirms Phillips as a pop auteur in his own right. Every song is a miniature epic recalling — but not mimicking — such greats as John Lennon (“The Bridge”), Robbie Robertson (“Even the Oxen”), Tom Petty (“Homespun”), even Tim Buckley (“All That I Have”). In fact, the album is quieter and more folk-oriented than its two predecessors, the instrumental flourishes no less enticing but definitely subordinate to Phillips’ vocals. The literal and emotional centerpiece is “Bethlehem Steel,” which tackles traditional Guthrie/Dylan/Springsteen subject matter and, with its surging string arrangement and Phillips’ impossible falsetto, is as grandly uplifting as a film’s feel-good finale.