From 1993 to '98, Grant Lee Buffalo made the kind of pop-music Americana that bridged the distance between Bob Dylan and U2. Led by Grant-Lee Phillips, the Buffalo roamed an alt-rock landscape trampled on by corporate radio, which cherry-picked the accessible bands and left the challenging artists to rot. Indeed, the Buffalo never left the reservation marked "critic's darlings," seemingly belonging to an earlier era, when music remained a presence in people's lives instead of an iTune. Now, Phillips proves his heart belongs to Big Daddy Morrissey with Nineteeneighties.
No, this isn't a covers album of tunes by the Jets and Culture Club. This is a world mapped out by the greatest bands of the Reagan years: Joy Division, New Order, the Church, the Cure, the Smiths, the Psychedelic Furs, Nick Cave, the Pixies and R.E.M. Phillips approaches each song with homespun instrumentation: piano, organ, mandolin and harmonica.
Initially, hearing "Wave of Mutilation" recast as a B-side to "Sea of Love" is unsettling, but once Phillips digs into the lovely melody of "Age of Consent," the teenage melancholy that once flooded your heart transforms into something deeper, darker--something akin to loss. "The Eternal," a song about a child attending a funeral, is now a cosmic requiem that proves Ian Curtis' genius with lines like: "Stood by the gate at the foot of the garden / Watching them pass like clouds in the sky." "So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry)" is revealed as the country song it always was, and "Boys Don't Cry" is appropriately complemented by toy piano. Nineteeneighties reminds us how great '80s alt-rock was--and remains.