Mighty Joe Moon enlightens through illustration
Mighty Joe Moon
Grant Lee Buffalo.
Slash/Warner Bros. Records.By John Jacobs
Grant Lee Buffalo's latest work, Mighty Joe Moon, is, I think, the most "natural" album I've ever heard. Mighty Joe gently questions our material and inhuman ambitions, and attempts to enlighten us by illustration instead of coercion.
This is the kind of pop music that threatens to bring us all together by entreating us to remove the fences we selfishly build among us. The lyrics and music seem to be about nothing less than religion at an individual level. Of course, this journalistic drivel is much harder to listen to than the perfect melodies on the album.
Grant Lee Phillips' voice comfortably explores a wide range of pitches, slipping gracefully into expressive twists and turns. As for his lyrical approach, he seems to have been influenced by R.E.M.: He employs murmuring (distortion of phonemes) and dynamic, rhyming variations on lyrical themes ("Where did my body go? / Marry my body, girl"), to keep the listener attentive.
Also, it's clear that even Phillips doesn't always know exactly what he's singing about. In trying to keep his lyrics open to other interpretations, he gets carried away by the other extreme. Thus, the lyrics, once understood, are too vague to "mean all things to all people." They risk, instead, meaning nothing to everybody. But they certainly don't sound meaningless or contrived.
The album is unusually dynamic. The songs steer clear of riff-bases, instead embracing more intuitive developments. The music is anti-formulaic, constantly venturing into new emotional fields, and the instruments always seem to find the most sublime and metaphorical counterpoint.
This interpretation of the music as "natural" seems to agree with Grant Lee Phillips: "These songs just up and walked out of the woods. And I can't say whether they're vegetable or mineral, 'cause when you bite into one of these things, you might get a mouthful of bones or a mouthful of notes."
While the music of Grant Lee Buffalo has its individual, distinct style, it's still useful to stereotype: Mighty Joe Moon sounds like Bob Dylan covering R.E.M.'s Automatic For the People (in fact, one song on the album, "The Last Days of Tecumseh" seems intentionally based on Dylan's music for "The Times They Are a Changin'"). At times, as in "Lone Star Song," a distorted guitar riff seems to allude to R.E.M.'s recent album, Monster. Incredibly (as Grant Lee Buffalo members are from Los Angeles), sometimes the music sounds southern, like country or bluegrass.
Overall, there is a certain relaxed aura to the album, hinting at emotional turmoil ("I am crumbling now / In an avalanche / I'm reaching for the rock of ages") but not without overtones of optimism or hints at hope. The album, in my view, is no more depressing than reality, which is as depressed as anyone should allow themselves to be.
Grant Lee Buffalo is appearing at the Paradise Rock Club on Friday, Nov. 4.