Grant Lee Buffalo was one of those bands that only got better as time went on, but still never managed to release an album that you’d worry about getting back if your friend borrowed it. The group’s final effort, 1998’s Jubilee, was packed with enough affably clever rock songs to attract the participation of guest musicians such as Michael Stipe and Robyn Hitchcock. But songwriter Grant-Lee Phillips still seemed to be having trouble welding his brainy sensibility to the requisite brawn of a rock band. Three years and one nondescript solo album (2000’s acoustic Ladies Love Oracle) later, the suddenly hyphenated Grant-Lee has finally found his niche with the casually terrific Mobilize.
Taking a cue from the inexplicably popular David Gray, Phillips surrounds himself with programmed beats and calm waves of synthesizers on this album, downplaying his guitar skills. Surprisingly, his folk-rock melodies sound more at home in the heart of the electronic fog than they ever have, giving Mobilize the same efficient, personal tone as U2 and R.E.M.’s recent output. “Lazily Drowning,” for example, consists of little more than a laid-back drum loop and a repeated trip down the musical scale, but it perfectly complements Phillips’ subtly cynical wordplay (occasionally replacing the refrain “Not a care in the world” with “Not a caring world”).
Even better are the songs with more fleshed-out arrangements, such as the giddy, celebratory pop of “Spring Released” or the beautiful, soaring “Sadness Soot.”
It doesn’t quite add up to the classic record Phillips is obviously capable of — the album starts to deflate after the stillborn title track (a ham-fisted replica of Björk’s demented orchestral techno). Still, as the Napoleon costume he sports on the album’s cover suggests, Mobilize finds him fully confident and in control of his music, which has freed him to create his most satisfying work to date.
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