Strangelet is a tight collection of 12 moody West Coast pop songs that sound great blasting out of a car stereo as the sun sinks into the horizon. "Runaway" simmers with melancholy tension as bass, piano and acoustic guitar combine in a series of escalating notes until the song finally opens like a gift, bearing sharp hooks, soaring guitar lines and a yearning chorus. "Soft Asylum (No Way Out)," meanwhile, broadens the album's theme of the strange and inescapable pain love often induces: "In your soft asylum / Come to vanish again / When your thoughts are crushing / And you're broken again."
Never has Phillips sounded so confident and dynamic in his guitarmanship, acoustic and electric. From the rockabilly strut of "Hidden Hand" to the metallic thunder of "Chain Lightning," it's as if he's absorbed the superficial qualities of every rock genre, employing them as attractive flourishes within his own brand of spectral folk-rock.
There's always a guest star on a Grant-Lee Phillips record. This time, R.E.M.'s Peter Buck pops in to play eight-string ukulele on the gorgeous pop jewel "Fountain of Youth." But Phillips doesn't need rock royalty to make a great album.