Grant Lee Phillips has scaled back the arrangements of his songs a great deal on Virginia Creeper, his third solo outing, and the starkness helps spotlight his remarkable singing voice, which sounds at times like John Lennon, sometimes like Michael Stipe, and increasingly a little like Nebraska-era Bruce Springsteen. Like Springsteen, Phillips centers his songwriting in a kind of mythic America, an approach he used as well in his former band, Grant Lee Buffalo. But it is an approach that works only if the songs and the characters in them are believable, and Phillips' carefully considered, ornate lyrics often work against that believability. It's an old artistic dilemma -- finding a way to combine complexity and simplicity in a single stroke, and it took Springsteen a while to find that balance, too. The starkness of the sound on Virginia Creeper definitely moves Phillips closer to that aim, and there are some striking songs here that have a lean, powerful ambiance, most notably "Calamity Jane," which appears to be a song about Jane Fonda, and the epic "Josephine of the Swamps," a tune with overreaching lyrics that is just so damn good, it pulls you in anyway. Songs like these are the reason Phillips' fans are going to love this album. The poet Robinson Jeffers once said it was hard to set fire to too much thought. We wouldn't want Grant Lee Phillips to think less, but sometimes its best to not show it, to strip back some of the artifice and let the listener do the work. It's a balancing act that is within Phillips' grasp, and Virginia Creeper moves him closer.
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AllMusic Review by Steve Leggett