Released in 1998 on Drag City
Experimental musician David Grubbs is probably best known for his amazing albums with the creative Chicago post-rock band Gastr Del Sol in the 90’s, and has since written a book on John Cage, prose poetry about improvisational music on fantasy instruments, and become a music professor at Brooklyn College. His first album as a dedicated songwriter brings together technical bluegrass banjo and fingerstyle acoustic guitar playing with abrupt stylistic shifts, philosophical questioning lyrics, improvisation, and drones. His imaginative arrangements are performed with an eclectic cast of musicians that include drummer John McEntire (Tortoise, The Sea and Cake), bassist Josh Abrams (Natural Information Society, Town & Country), and drone violinist Tony Conrad.
A1 – The Thicket
The title track opens the album with light banjo strumming, low thumping bass and dry vocal delivery that last for most of the song. “With two of us before the thicket, I answer you with a question that by definition returns in shards of gambit, or just ambition”. One thing that stands out in the lyric sheet is how many question marks there are throughout the album. When the intellectual pondering ends, the song turns slow and lush, with mournful accordion, mandolin, and horn arrangements.
A2 – Two Shades of Blue
Slow, bendy acoustic guitar strums ring out, creating some western vibes with Conrad’s droney fiddle and the dramatic drums and bass that only hit certain accents. The guitar playing is really expressive and complementary to the pondering vocals. After a short drop out, the song picks up with a happy, driving section let by uptempo drums and triumphant flugelhorn, eventually leading to an arbitrary fade out.
A3 – Fool Summons Train
This song feels the most bluegrass so far, with interlocking fast banjo, acoustic guitar, and spurts of rushed-delivery vocals singing about waiting for a train. Occasionally the song with get quiet and drop out, only to abruptly kick back in again. The drums have a great motorik vibe that sounds like a chugging train, complemented by violin that recalls a train’s steam horn.
My favorite line on this one has to be “Did you summon to say, ‘get thee gone!’ That you don’t have any place to be except where you stand presently?”
A4 – Orange Disaster
Kicks in with hectic drums, piano, and bass, guitar feedback swells in and out slowly.
B1- Amleth’s Gambit
A slow, contemplative banjo improvisation kicks into rushed banjo and drums with quick bursts of vocals. Piano joins with a dramatic chord progression build-up that drops back to sparse banjo, only to kick back into another rushed verse. Becomes slow and triumphant with pulsing piano chords and flugelhorn, “I Fear I’ll be ready, but not asked to answer for anything, & yet I’ll be ready”.
B2 – 40 Words on “Worship”
Violin and accordion drone, dissonant but hypnotic, set against clean vocals. Dedicated to Alfreda Benge and Robert Wyatt
B3 – Swami Vivekananda Way
Instrumental track of soft, rhythmic piano chords and trumpet
B4 – Buried in the Wall
Slowcore guitar and drums in 3/4 with pretty vocals from Mary Lass Stewart. The bass and guitar interlock to create cool melodies, drums play stop and start rhythms. David’s vocals come in for second verse, but trades back with Mary. Driving guitar groove kicks in with wild drums underneath, fades out fairly soon.
B5 – On “Worship”
Instrumental, less dissonant reprisal of B2. Mostly a meditative violin drone but supported by accordion and some flugelhorn.