The concentrated nexus of romance, recollection, historic struggles and tragedies, and peerless craftsmanship – coupled with the hopes, fears, and isolation that accompany transition – formed the backdrop of The Narrows, Grant-Lee Phillips' latest dispatch on Yep Roc Records. Bathed in a woody, warmly reverberating sonic signature, the album's thirteen songs are marked by longing and a resolute sense of purpose: As though hurling yourself full-force into the unknown is as sensible as any other more commonly prescribed course. After all, what feels unknown may be residing just below the surface – should you be willing to dig for it and be open to discovery.
The tension between past and present, foundations and freedom, embodies nearly every song on The Narrows. The elliptically rolling, marimba-laced "Cry Cry" sings out from the perspective of one who's ancestral home and culture has been lost. Riding in on a mid-tempo three-finger banjo roll, "Rolling Pin" turns the focus to the more quotidian, presenting a sonic scrapbook of Phillips' early misadventures with his wife. The Narrows' depth of subject matter, starkly dynamic performance, and uncluttered poetry put Phillips' gift as a vocalist – as translator and living vessel of these ideas – to the test. His burnished tenor rings simultaneously confessional and confident, bringing an off-hand candor to his songs heaviest moments while imbuing the smaller moments with palpable awe.
Occasional overdubs – keys, pedal steel, fiddle – enrich the song's textures without detracting from the absorbing immediacy of the performances. Having access to Dan Auerbach collection of museum-quality vintage equipment didn't hurt either...and, cementing The Narrows' Nashville bona fides, drummer Jerry Roe's dad Dave, who played bass with Johnny Cash for eleven years, dropped in to add upright to the gently propulsive "No Mercy In July."