Grant-Lee Phillips – Widdershins
Yep Roc Records – 23 February 2018
The term ‘widdershins’ is defined as going in a counter-clockwise direction or always keeping an object to your left side. In Grant Lee-Phillips terms, it’s used to ask the question what direction are we, as a society or as individuals, moving. This seems particularly pertinent to the world in these Trump/ Brexit days and the upheavals of peoples and the rise of religious fundamentalism.
He says it was fuelled by a sense of urgency, something reflected in the fact that the whole thing only took four days to record, giving it an often raw, in your face feel. Self-produced and working in a trio format with Jerry Roe on drums and Lex Price on bass, he links it to his early work as Grant-Lee Buffalo in the mid-90s, another time of social and political upheaval, especially in America. As such, it also shares a kindred musical spirit with an emphasis on cranked up guitars and driving, muscular hooks-laden melodies. Indeed, there are occasions where, as on the pounding Scared Stiff and the equally propulsive Great Acceleration, even when the lyrics have bared teeth, it’s the riff that dominates.
Byrdsian ringing guitar gets the train rolling with the punchy Walk In Circles as he sings “I’d rather go down fighting for the water that start another war for oil” and “walk around with the witches” (as echoed on the album cover), likening those who “refuse to be enlightened” to the Inquisition.
The mood slips into a bluesier, strings-coated prowl with Unruly Mobs, its ominous, warning lyrics mirrored in the almost siren-like guitar distortions. The vocals taking a breathily hushed approach for the gently strummed, 60s, slightly Beatles- shaded King of Catastrophes with its reference to omens, the fall of Troy, the Berlin Wall and Cassandra, the Greek oracle cursed to have no one believe her prophecies. In the line “From what I hear of fascism, I wouldn’t put it past him” it’s not difficult to read an allusion to the current White House incumbent. Something’s Gotta Give breathes that same miasmic air, albeit its dreamy sway punctuated by the staccato hammering title line and underpinning guitar.
The rhythmically bouncy Miss Betsy is an altogether folksier strum that seems to be about America’s social and economic divides and the loss of an earlier innocence where there’s no longer time for “pennies on the tracks.” Things then crank back up again with The Wilderness, Roe laying down the thumping backbone as Phillips talks about being unable to tell the men from monsters. In the rousing scouring guitar and backing vocal howl chorus he sings of how we may have crawled our way out of the ocean but “the wild blood in our veins still courses” and “we never left the wilderness” as “you become the very thing you fear.”
It takes a tempo breather for a return to the 60s pop hushed, steady walking beat delivery of Another, Another, Then Boom. A twangy guitar then heralds one the album standouts with the alt-country Totally You Gunslinger. With hints of George Harrison wafting through the melody he directs his attention to those who, like the late Charlton Heston, would rather have their rifles prised from their cold dead hands than give up their Second Amendment rights, asking “do you want to be like them?”
It’s placed perfectly before the Neil Young-like ballad History Has Their Number that sets out its stall with the opening line “You can’t live in anger, nobody can“, going on to ask why people have to march or beg for their rights or what is just. He rather underlines why it’s difficult not to feel such a response to those who “wish to judge you and those who will begrudge all you the freedoms they themselves enjoy.” The point being that “it means more to create than destroy.”
It ends as it began with a crashing guitar-fuelled anthemic surge, Liberation, the lyrics about toppling the king echoing the references to the French Revolution in Unruly Mob, the line about a “glorious war” more sounding a warning note to those who will not see the signs in history of how revolution and the victory cry “comes brutally quick” than being an actual call to arms. It’s a potent work in response to a moment in time, when, whether it’s clockwise or anti, there seems to be, as Dylan put it, no direction home that is a road rather than a minefield.
Grant-Lee Phillips UK Tour Dates
April 17 — Bush Hall — London
April 18 — Hare & Hounds — Birmingham
April 19 — Philharmonic Music Room — Liverpool
April 20 — Deaf Institute — Manchester
April 21 — King Tuts — Glasgow
April 22 — Brudenell Social Club — Leeds
April 24 — Portland Arms — Cambridge
April 25 — The Lantern — Bristol
Out now on Yep Roc. Order via Amazon