Grant-Lee PhillipsGrant-Lee Phillips

I would never have guessed anyone could pull off a successful version of the Pixies' "Wave of Mutilation" using an upright bass and a ukelele. Nor would I have envisioned the Cure's formative single "Boys Don't Cry" could be managed with an acoustic guitar and a toy piano.

But that's exactly what Grant-Lee Phillips does on Nineteeneighties, an acoustic excursion through the best tracks of early '80s alternative radio.

With a melancholic world-weary drawl in his voice, a lackadaisical snare and occasionally some quiet-but-odd background instruments supporting his acoustic guitar, he manages to bring vibrant new interpretive life to New Order 's “Age of Consent,” The Church 's “Under the Milky Way,” Robyn Hitchcock 's “I Often Dream of Trains,” Echo and the Bunnymen 's “The Killing Moon,” Psychedelic Furs ' “Love My Way,” and R.E.M. 's So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry).” Phillips' naturally low-voiced whiskey-tinged delivery is especially evocative on the latter two tracks; in fact of all the songs he covers, he sounds the most like the original singer (Michael Stipe) on “So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry).”

Phillips explains that the album is something of a “personal mix tape that reeled around my head for decades.”

He adds, “a lot of us, who were fans, found real purpose in the search for new music during the early eighties, the discovery of something that wasn't readily being delivered over the airwaves. Music that wasn't yanked off a rack and, for the most part, wasn't advertised, this was a treasure. The tangible upsurge of underground and alternative artists releasing great albums on small labels is what really captivated me.”

While its somber and sparse production may feel a little “country-coffeehouse”ish to fans of the original songs – which were mostly larger, more raucous full band productions – “Nineteeneighties” manages to both pay tribute to the original songs while successfully reinterpreting them through a sepia-lens of remembrance. And Phillips' drawl of worldweary reminiscience that colors all of these tracks is something that all of us who survived the ‘80s can identify with at this point, some 20 years on.

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Coming Up to Breathe

Combining the mid-tempo vocal rock lilt of Del Amitri with the pounding guitar energy of Collective Soul and even a touch of the R&B richness of Jude Cole, MercyMe turns rock radio on its ear with Coming Up to Breathe, a stunning album of soulful rock tracks just begging to be stadium rock hits. The disc opens with the anthemic “Coming Up to Breathe,” followed by a bouyant pounding march of the CD's first single in “So Long Self,” a song about “dying to live” or, to put it another way, a “breakup song to oneself.”

Coming Up to Breathe is the band's fifth album, following discs that earned MercyMe both Christian and adult contemporary hits, as well as awards from the American Music Awards and Gospel Music Association. MercyMe is a band that manages to successfully straddle the Christian/pop music divide; Coming Up to Breathe includes some obviously Christian-themed tracks, but overall, it listens easily as a catchy upbeat pop-rock collection, rather than a preachy disc. And like many Christian rock bands, their lyrics can often be read as songs to God…or a lover. For example the huge chorus of the disc's final song, “I Would Die For You,” could serve as a prom or wedding theme as easily as a worship song:

“Now my life has never been this clear
now I know the reason I am here
you never know why your alive until you know what you would die for
I would die for you.”

It's an inspirational song no matter how you listen to it. As is the whole album. This is feel-good rock that will keep you listening again and again.

For more information, check the band's web site at