Listen to this track by L.A folk-rock-indie trio with a feel for psychedelic texture, Grant Lee Buffalo. It’s “Mockingbirds”, a single as taken from 1994’s Mighty Joe Moon, their second album. The song scored a top-twenty showing on Billboard’s “Modern Rock” chart, representing their initial exposure to a wider audience.
By the time this track was recorded, the band had a clearer idea of what they wanted to sound like, and had had some experience in the studio to help them realize their ambitions. That’s the magic of the second album! Also, though, they had had a lot of road experience as headliners and also as a supporting act of the some of the biggest bands of the time, including Pearl Jam, REM, and Smashing Pumpkins. They were seasoned pros by this time!
But, this sense of success, and the feeling of taking things to a more professional level began to become a source of stress, along with personal events in the life of head writer Grant Lee Phillips that seemed to run in parallel. How is that reflected on this song?
“Mockingbirds” hooks into a woozy psych sound, a sumptuous and ambitious arrangement full of textural variety and detail seeming at the time to sound completely contemporary even as it utilized the textures and feel from another era. One of the trends that made this era of the mid-90s so vibrant was that a mix of influences from any point on the rock spectrum like this was more easily achieved without it sounding so self-conscious as it would have even a few years before by the end of the 1980s. Very loosely speaking, the artifice of the ’80s where charting hits had to sound airtight and new in order to be noticed had been replaced by the directness of the ’90s.
This leads me to another point about this song. It’s personal in nature, but not in a ’70s confessional singer-songwriter sort of way. This song was inspired by the destruction of Grant Lee Phillips’ home due to a 1994 earthquake in the L.A area during the recording of this album. “Mockingbirds” was an eleventh hour addition in the light of that. But this isn’t just about the loss of one home. It’s about the change to the course of our lives brought about by any kind of loss, and the knowledge that loss is inevitable. The mockingbirds in this song have an emphasis on the mocking.
The reasons for quickly adding the song to the new record could be many. It’s a strong song artistically speaking, of course. But, I wonder if it was an “eleventh hour” addition because it captured something of where the band, and Phillips, were at the time better than any other song written by then. Maybe it was a necessary song, one that certainly examines life as it is defined by factors over which we have no control. One of those factors is often success itself, which the band were beginning to experience by the time Mighty Joe Moon was released. Despite hard work, talent, and the right connections, success can be a fickle creature despite all that, sometimes making us feel like we’ve been set up all along when it takes its leave of us. It can in fact seem like looking at our ruined houses and all that we invested in them after an earthquake has done its damage, and feeling as though they were never really ours at all.
Grant Lee Buffalo would last for two more records (to date), ending with 1998’s Jubilee, featuring another radio hit, “Truly, Truly”. But, that record would not feature original member , bassist Paul Kimble. And by the release of that record, things would break apart for the band. Success in terms of an ongoing life together as a group would be fickle indeed.
But, Grant Lee Phillips would embark on a solo career by 2000 which endures to this day. You can catch up to him at grantleephillips.com.