A peculiar aggressiveness has entered the live act Grant Lee Phillips is proffering to support his band’s latest Slash/Warners disc, “Jubilee.” Phillips is working from extremes — high-pitched vocals give way to a bottom-of-the-ocean baritone, thunderous electric guitars interrupt gentle acoustic strumming — rather than a focused center. As such, he seems much larger as a performer, ready for arenas even, yet there’s a disturbing sameness to the delivery that will make his avid supporters wonder what’s going on here.
“Jubilee,” the L.A. band’s fourth disc for the Warners family, conjures images of sideshows and circuses; its first single, “Truly, Truly,” is the closest thing Grant Lee Buffalo has had to a hit. The unit’s last album, the stunning fusion of pop melodrama titled “Copperopolis,” slipped through the corporate cracks as its 1996 release followed the enormous shakeup at Warners. As enrapturing as GLB can be, their music has been a difficult sell: Moody and atmospheric with more than a hint of “Magical Mystery Tour” and “Ziggy Stardust,” the band has spent the decade forging an uncategorizable model for folk-rock that may just continue to influence bands deep into the 21st century.
Phillips and band spent the first third of their 90-minute show driving home an assortment of harder-edged numbers, using the U2 model of slowing tempos and reducing instrumentation to create dynamics. The tack runs counter to Phillips’ forte, namely positing himself as a magnet toward intimacy. Here, particularly when the quartet loads up on electric instruments and expands the sound toward a metallic tempest, his delivery remains subtle and out of character for both the music and him — there’s a fourth wall being erected that singer-songwriters have fought for three decades.
On one level the sonic barrage works like Led Zeppelin or Jane’s Addiction, and after years of seeing Phillips succeed as a distiller of folk-rock with a bit of glam — the band has a song in the “Velvet Goldmine” pic — this stage presentation didn’t feel quite right.
When the music turns acoustic, and for the most part, gentler, all the qualities that have defined Grant Lee Buffalo are in check. The familiar material — “Honey Don’t Think,” “Jupiter and Teardrop,” “Mockingbirds,” “Truly, Truly” — were given tender treatments and as the circusy elements of “Jubilee’ entered the picture, they held sway in their slightness. Vocals got lost here and there, but this was a relatively well-mixed show.
New members Phil Parlapiano and Bill Bonk, who in the early ’90s recorded as the Figaro Brothers, expand the GLB base, particularly when the shadings borrow from a glam-rock or psychedelic realm. The more the evening wore on, the more the instrumentalists colored the accompaniment. But the plodding tempo Phillips has used effectively in a host of settings failed to dim or burn brighter. It just went on and on and on.