One of the great if not somewhat unappreciated bands to have emerged during the ’90s was Grant Lee Buffalo. In itself part of a movement of Americana made popular by REM in the decade before.
While REM may have based its songs on bits of Southern folklore, many of the bands who followed in their tracks developed musical mythologies of their own based on where they were from. The Miracle Legion in Connecticut, Counting Crows in the Northern and Grant Lee Buffalo in the Southern part of California.
Grant Lee Buffalo as the name suggests was wrapped tightly in nostalgia from the American Western frontier. While not cowboy rock, the songs were colored with a sepia toned haze that suggested modern antiquity. Simple arrangements centered around analog instruments like the harmonica, guitar and Hammond organ separated Grant Lee Buffalo from its peers.
That distinction came mostly from its primary voice, Grant Lee Phillips. Along with Paul Kimble, the pair wrote and arranged much of the Grant Lee Buffalo Sound. After making a big splash with their debut Fuzzy in 1993, Grant Lee Buffalo would record 4 albums to much critical acclaim and the occasional hit. Their final album came with heavy expectations from the band’s label.
Ironically when the band was poised to become the next big thing (again), forces in the music industry and changing demographics would conspire to lessen the impact of their final album Jubilee.
Most people might remember the album from its one big hit “Truly, Truly”. It reached #11 on the modern rock charts and was all over the radio. A second single “Testimony” was another popular track on modern rock radio. What many people did not realize was that much of the band had dropped out leaving Grant Lee Phillips and drummer Joe Peters some of the few original members.
Jubilee was essentially a Grant Lee Phillips project with the help of choice friends. The studio guest list actually included influences like Micheal Stipe on “Everybody Needs a Little Sanctuary” and Robyn Hitchcock in various backing vocal duties.
The big name talent did little to boost the album to major pop status beyond the one single, but it did highlight tightened playing, song writing and arrangements skills from Phillips. Produced by the brother team of Jeff and Paul Fox, Jubilee continued on with the tradition of a warm analogue sound the band established from the beginning..
Unlike some previous recordings, Jubilie had both the muscular sound of the previous Coperopolis and a uplifting, almost happy vibe to it. Songs like the driving “A.P.B” or “Crooked Dice” could have easily fit on Coperopolis. Perhaps Phillips having more control of the writing helped in the new musical direction and vigor or maybe he knew then that his solo career was just beginning.
Grant Lee Buffalo may have ended with Jubilie, but Grant Lee Phillips would continue in a similar vein. Unfortunately, as the industry began to move more post rock bands like Radiohead or dance influenced artists like Bjork, Massive Attack and Beck, the rustic Americana of Grant Lee Buffalo was beginning to sound dated. Even REM struggled to adjust during this period. They always say its best to quit while you’re ahead, and Grant Lee Buffalo did just that with Jubilee.