Glen Phillips – Mr. Lemons (2006)
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Glen Phillips - Mr. Lemons

Third time’s the charm. Glen Phillips’ first solo album, 2001’s Abulum, found him taking his first steps away from the widescreen alt-pop of Toad the Wet Sprocket and toward more of an intimate storyteller vibe, sometimes awkwardly. Last year’s Winter Pays for Summer, in direct contrast, was a (sometimes distractingly) slick, guest-star-stuffed bid for the kind of mainstream success Toad once enjoyed. Both albums have their moments — probably more than their share — but each felt strangely tentative in its way. Phillips isn’t Randy Newman and he isn’t Johnny Rzeznik, and he seemed to know that, even if he wasn’t completely certain yet who he actually is.

With Mr. Lemons, Phillips has crafted a cohesive, uniformly stellar set of the emotionally intimate, quietly insightful stuff at which he’s always excelled, with production to match. It’s the kind of record you can easily forget you’re listening to if your attention is elsewhere; in fact, if you go into it hoping for a return to the sensitive anthems of Phillips’ past, you’ll probably be more than a little disappointed. Actually, no matter what you’re expecting out of Mr. Lemons, it’ll most likely require a series of thoughtful listens before it really reveals itself.

Give it those listens. You’ll be happy you did. Speaking as someone who appreciated Toad the Wet Sprocket mostly for what they weren’t (namely, more goddamn flannel rock) than anything they were, this album really, finally reveals the scope of what Phillips has to offer as a songwriter. Longtime Toad fans will howl at that remark, but it’s a compliment — and anyway, these songs are deeper, more subtly shaded, and more confident than anything Phillips did as a fresh-faced king of modern rock.

It’s an honestly lovely pop record. Phillips says he wants to be a Richard Thompson or a John Hiatt — a guy who gets to keep on making music forever, regardless of sales — and though his music has little in common with either Thompson’s or Hiatt’s, he seems to be headed toward that kind of career. These songs are held together with gossamer thread; sometimes unspeakably beautiful, but always requiring a reflective moment to discover that beauty. The sort of songs, in other words, that don’t often make their way onto the radio.

What buzz there is around Mr. Lemons will mostly center on the album’s cover of Huey Lewis’ “I Want a New Drug,” but forget all that — it’s a pleasantly inventive reconstruction, but it could fall right off the record and you’d never miss it. Start with “Thank You” (download) and “Waiting” (download), then go get your own copy.