Grant Lee Phillips' Walking in the Green Corn

Grant Lee Phillips' Walking in the Green Corn is a contemplative affair, much like 2009's understated Little Moon. Unassuming yet self-aware, Phillips' songs pack a quiet power.  Always a first-rate vocalist and lyricist, he digs deeper here paying homage to his Native American heritage in ways he hasn't since Virginia Creeper.

Phillips blends his subtle lyrics with quiet guitars and tons of intimacy. He expertly sets the stage for his story songs, taking his time in order to get the details just right. On "Vanishing Song" his lyrics are sparse, yet they tell an expansive tale of times long gone. "Great Horned Owl" is more upbeat, recalling Grant Lee Buffalo more than Phillips' solo work but still creating a vibe of late nights and long ago moments. Walking in the Green Corn perfectly captures the intimacy one feels with old friends as new discoveries become more important because they are made together. Phillips' narrative world is familiar, especially to those who wait patiently for his records, but new listeners will appreciate his flair for story-telling. On "Buffalo Hearts," he focuses on his heritage again to great effect; its music is a hopeful match for stories that could be tragic in the hands of other song-writers. "The Straighten Outer" is a creation story set to a jaunty beat; Phillips sings "All the world's a rattle snake waiting to unwind" as he develops the story of the sacred clown, Heyoka or a similar being. These types of figures sit easily near other stories of hardship and success that could happen to anyone -- romantic stories of love lost and gained don't clutter the record; they instill it with palpable life.

Phillips has learned that less is more since the more complicated, lyrically and musically, days of Grant Lee Buffalo. His story songs are sparse, reflective, and real. He knows how to use a clever phrase for effect, but does not ignore the fact that a catchy hook can do wonders. His songs reflect the visual elements of the sky, for instance, in "Thunderbird," without feeling too weighty with metaphor. He has grown more optimistic over the years and even the most emotional songs here capture the spirit of regrowth and acceptance. His vocals remain assured and flexible, especially on the last two, and arguably best (or most representative) tracks. "Black Horses in a Yellow Sky" relies on breezy guitar melodies with piano accompaniment in its description of a dream. Phillips' voice drips with contagious optimism; the song sounds much larger than it is as the "horses scatter just like leaves from every corner of the earth." "Walking in the Green Corn" is a great summation of everything that has come before -- an ageless and infectious call for renewal that celebrates the future crop and indicates that things can only get better. He sings, "Blow away the dust forever / Tear up those seeds of doubt / Blow away hate / Roll on out like some dark cloud." Sara Watkins' fiddle is prominent adding just enough complexity to a simple, yet welcome, song. Once the song is over, there is little left to do except jubilantly shout and play the album over again; my only complaint is that it's so damn short.

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