You wouldn’t think David Grubbs would have the time to make records these days. In recent times he’s created and curated instillations at the Pompidou Centre, written a book about John Cage, earned himself an English Ph.D., been the subject of a documentary, dabbled in criticism and taught at colleges across the United States.
But, thankfully, the former Squirrel Bait, Gastr Del Sol and Bastro guitarist hasn’t given up the day job. In fact he seems to be busier than ever on the song writing front. There’s a new album by the Wingdale Community Singers – an acoustic, collaborative project, released on his own record label – a forthcoming release with Andrea Belfi and Stefano Pilia, and there’s The Plain Where the Palace Stood, his latest solo album.
For the most part moving away from the song-based sound of his previous solo release, Rickets and Scurvy, and into more compositional territory, The Plain Where the Palace Stood nonetheless feels musically like a continuation of Grubbs’ earlier work. As always, the emphasis is on the guitar. Grubbs is obsessive – proudly so – over the tone of his instrument, honed over the thirty-plus years of his career, and it is a potent weapon, abetted on some tracks by fellow guitarist Pilia and percussionist/electronics maestro Belfi.
The album kicks off with the instrumental title track, a narrative told entirely by muscular lead guitar – with a forcefulness left over from Grubbs post-hardcore days – over wobbly, fluty, atonal electronics. The influence of John Cage is there, lurking below the surface, but there are gentler moments of more conventional songcraft too. The four vocal pieces on the album resound with the wit of a seasoned storyteller, I Started to Live When My Barber Died is particularly charming.
High points include three Salutations – instrumentals linked only by their sense of experimentation. The first recalls sombre krautrock, the second is all itchy, restless acoustic guitar and the third is a seven and a half minute spasm, a growing ripple of discord that showcases Grubbs’ growing infatuation with contemporary composition. It is a fitting end to an album that is equal parts brainy, bonkers and bewildering, but never anything less than rewarding.
Review by: Thomas Blake
Don’t miss DAVID GRUBBS WITH ANDREA BELFI & STEFANO PILIA on Monday 10 June 2013 at Cafe Oto, London.