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Downsizing Drama with Delicacy and Grace

Grant-Lee Phillips puts his familiar stamp on a batch of great songs from the '80s.
Grant-Lee Phillips puts his familiar stamp on a batch of great songs from the '80s.

As leader of the '90s roots-pop group Grant Lee Buffalo, Grant-Lee Phillips built a reputation as a modest, approachable sleeper: Stardom has eluded him as both a bandleader and a solo act, but a devoted cult following has followed him down some odd side roads along the way. Phillips' fourth solo album, nineteeneighties, would seem to be one of those creative detours -- the set finds him covering '80s alt-rock classics by the likes of R.E.M., the Cure and the Pixies -- but it's surprising how smoothly these tributes fit into his homespun, heartfelt catalog.

It helps that Phillips works with top-notch source material, and that nineteeneighties functions as a labor of love, which goes a long way toward explaining the extent to which he puts his personal stamp on this batch of familiar greats. His work sounds particularly striking on a reworking of The Smiths' "Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me," as he scales back the original's outsized, Morrissey-driven melodrama to great effect.

Built around a gently plucked acoustic guitar, Phillips' falsetto and a slow-moving blur of synths, the track takes its time accumulating its emotional impact, closing nineteeneighties with a moment of delicacy and grace. It's not a star-making performance, exactly. But Phillips was born to be an under-appreciated gem, not a star, and this sweetly unassuming cover serves as a natural manifestation of that destiny.

Listen to yesterday's 'Song of the Day.'

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Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)