Hard to credit that David Grubbs is only 45. A singer/songwriter, multi-instrumentalist (guitar, keys, etc.) and left-field composer, he was a founder member of the groups Squirrel Bait, Bastro, Gastr del Sol (alongside Jim O’Rourke) and, latterly, The Wingdale Community Singers; he has also played with Codeine and The Red Krayola, among others, and enjoys a fruitful ongoing collaboration with the poet Susan Howe; all this in addition to multifarious, extensively documented solo projects and work as a bandleader.
It’s been mooted that The Plain where the Palace Stood is the album on which the diverse strands of Grubbs’ work finally pull together. Well, that’s not really true; it’s the latest of his occasional, more-rather-than-less commercial pop/rock albums—The Thicket, The Spectrum Between, Rickets & Scurvy, A Guess at the Riddle (still your best bet if you like your music emphatic), and An Optimist Notes the Dusk—all released on Drag City since 1998. It is, however, the album which most satisfyingly works elements of Grubbs’ instrumental art music into his song-based group work.
Take the Rickets album: its brief (and very welcome) cameos by Matmos are islanded by the album’s flow; and An Optimist, on which the 12 instrumental minutes of “The Not-So-Distant” bloom like a black hole at the album’s end, devouring the listener’s experience of the songs preceding it. The Plain is similarly sequenced, from driving, Six Organs-style mesa-cana songs to more thoughtful and introspective, primarily instrumental pieces; but here the effect is achieved seamlessly, by shifting emphases, not as a result of conceptual discontinuity. The Plain where the Palace Stood is ambitiously multifarious, but satisfyingly homogeneous.
The album was recorded at studio sessions over the space of a year, with minimal overdubbing. The core group here is the Belfi/Grubbs/Pilia trio first heard on the vinyl-only Onrushing Cloud (2010, Blue Chopsticks). Andrea Belfi plays drums, percussion and/or electronics on all but four of 11 tracks; Stefano Pilia plays guitars on just four. On violin, C. SPenCer Yeh accompanies Grubbs and Belfi on the title track; Grubbs, Pilla and Attila Faravelli (electronics) combine on “A View of the Mesa”; and Faravelli and Grubbs duet on “Fugitive Colors”.
All of the songs are Grubbs compositions except “Second Salutation” and “Third Salutation”. Those, being credited to Belfi, Grubbs, and Pilia, are probably improvisations, except only Grubbs plays on the former—a stripped-down, close-mic’d, lyrical finger-picking fragment—so go figure. Only four pieces have lyrics. Of these, the characteristically hypnotic “I Started to Live when My Barber Died” is also Grubbs solo.
The boldest moves come upfront: Yeah’s violin, reminiscent of Tony Conrad, giving the propulsive, Fahey-as-postrock opening number “The Plain where the Palace Stood” an abrasive corona in place of a lyric. “I Started to Live” is melodically direct and beguiling in its musical clarity, as Grubbs voices a drily humorous take on ageing and music’s memory traces: “I don’t age. / I don’t. / The style does, I don’t / Depart from this date.” Grubbs’ slightly mannered way with a lyric, always, as ever, on the song-cusp of narrative. And “Ornamental Hermit” (the lyric of which, confusingly, includes the line “A View of the Mesa”) flowers with melodic richness, the lilt in Pilia’s guitar playing giving the track a Wilco-esque fillip.
The mix of mallet percussion, electric guitar FX and high-pitch electronic tones on “First Salutation” is the album’s first interval of abstract experimentation. “Super-Adequate” brushes it aside in its eagerness to reassert a more forceful dynamic, but “Second Salutation” and the introspective song fragment “The Hesitation Waltz” seems to encapsulate Grubbs’ tendency to recoil from the obvious: “Step wisely / Gather, hesitate, hesitate, expand / Hesitate, uncoil / Let’s not rush it.”
“A View of the Mesa” is a reverie of haunted and haunting electric guitar chords and fx, mostly untroubled until its dying moments by electronic wraiths and rubbed violin. The following “Abracadabrant” strips away these extra tracks, before the midpoint introduction of Belfi’s percussion and electronics adds colour, like sunlight piercing its obscurity. It’s with keen attention to such evanescent details that Grubbs hooks the listener’s attention; equally with such boldly-hewn chords and sustains as those that frame the lyric “Fugitive Colors”.
The brushed percussion and rung-glass electronic skein of “Third Salutation” loosely follow through on the locomotive theme suggested by “Fugitive Colors” (“The bridge over the railroad tracks elevates the viewer / Compresses the view, allows you to see the slow curve / Of what I’d imagined to be arrow-straight tracks”); but this is one ghostly loco until the introduction of a brittle acoustic guitar motif two minutes from the end; all it takes for Grubbs to tie this eight minute instrumental into a satisfying coda.
The Plain where the Palace Stood might not be the complete David Grubbs, but I think it might be his best album to date. It’s certainly the best place to start if you’ve yet to discover his music.