In a previous life I wrote up Israel Nash Gripka’s Barn Doors And Concrete Floors and Live At Mr Frits CDs, the latter offering a rawer take on (mostly) the same songs. At the time I praised the songwriters growing maturity, as lyrically and melodically he had already progressed substantially from his New York Town debut. Much as that first outing had already caught my ears, his second was a game changer. It marked a life change for Israel too as he moved out of the city to the Catskills and took a bold approach to the whole recording business. The title says it all, finding an isolated barn and moving just enough technology and like minded musicians into a kind of communal retreat, rehearsing, recording and living together. The result was a triumph.
Musically it suggested a frayed denim patchwork of Neil Young, Ryan Adams, Green On Red and their ilk with a hint of the Stones country honk, but with songs more than good enough to stand up for themselves amidst such star billing. Such comparisons may of course be of dubious worth, except in giving a frame of reference to things that you, dear reader, might be more familiar with. Lines like “Building bridges ain’t the hardest part, it’s trying to swim when they fall apart,” from the storming Fools Gold proved ample demonstration of Israel’s songwriting clout on his own terms. His keening voice and wordplay lit up the classic guitar drenched backing, spiked with Joey McClennan’s searing lead runs. Steve Shelly’s production caught the whole Catskills vibe, not to mention the odd passing dog.
Well guess what? He’s gone and done it again. Not only has he made another dramatic shift in personal geography, he’s also shifted musical gears once more and Israel Nash’s Rain Plans finds him hitting overdrive.
Having grown up in the original big country of Missouri, fallen for the magnetic lure and bright lights of the Big Apple, before heading upstate from there, he now calls the Texas hills on the outskirts of Austin home. Once again returned to a wilder, remoter environment, his music seems to be drawing breath, sucking in the whole big sky vista and with one mighty exhale, throwing out a wall of sound.
This is big, bold and full on. The initial impression is that while Israel resides in Texas, poncho and all, he’s looking out west to Laurel Canyon and that Neil Young has won a buckskin battle for the spiritual heart of Gripka’s music. The interlocking arpeggio riffing, the mournful harmonies the searing edge of feedback and Humbucker harmonics of the lead lines, the lonesome moan and sigh of pedal steel and what could well be a mellotron, create a heady fog. This is a soulful country soup of sound permeating through the stratified layers of the late 60s and early 70s, spiced with a peppering of psychedelia, redolent of Americas country-rock apex. At the same time it’s very now and Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, Midlake, Arbouretum, Hush Arbours and much of the Thrill Jockey roster, not to mention Scandinavian outfit The Amazing and even perhaps Phoenix Foundation will find linking threads with Israel.
It takes several plays to start to separate the layers and really get into this record and it’s then that you start to realise that it’s a far more complex, subtle and nuanced work than the initial impression gives. Don’t get me wrong, flip the CD from its case and it sounds good, really good, immediately. But the more you play it, the less it sounds like anything else you’ve ever heard. Little details make themselves known and there are variations in texture and feel that profoundly affect your emotional response to the music. It almost makes me want to start the review over again, but then what I’m trying to give is an honest response to what I hear. It’s just that response is changing.
Maybe it’s the journey that Israel is on. The simple principal behind the previous record sounds like the ‘getting it together in the country’ rock myth, yet it was unquestionably liberating. You can understand how the Missouri born rock ‘n’ roller might have been lured to New York to test his mettle, but you can pluck a boy out of the big country without ever getting that big country out of him. Perhaps in returning to the less populous zone and relative isolation of the Texas hills, where rattlers and tumbleweed are more likely companions than other human beings, he’s started to connect with his core again. It could be that Israel’s journey around the various states is about his journey into himself, an inner artistic awakening.
America is still big and empty enough to get really lost in nature, but there’s evidence here that isn’t necessarily a comfortable place to be. It could be that the splendid isolation is getting to him as he sings, “Bring your loving through the door, I could use a little more,” in Through The Door. And it’s echoed in Who In Time, as he sings, “I could use some company.” The latter is one of the most Neil Young like tracks with hints of Down By The River in the melody and just a wiff of Heart of Gold in the harmonica.
The following Myer County starts in ominous fashion as well, with a low pitched wash of sound, but suddenly bursts out into an almost folk-baroque combination of acoustic guitar and mandolin. As the song progresses the familiar technique of layering guitars and pedal steel continues. Backwards guitars and the sudden gear shift at the end of the track are neat touches.
Much of the time the layering has the effect of pushing Israel’s words back into the mix. In some ways it’s like early R.E.M, when Stipe’s lyrics were oblique ciphers you had to work hard for, or more recently Bon Iver. Overall though, it’s part of a comforting, blanketing and enveloping sound, more in tune with the latter’s second helping and without the nagging, tense urgency of say, Reckoning and Murmur.
A similar tempo change happens in Rain Plans the title track. Weighing in at over seven minutes it’s the longest track, but all of the songs seem designed to allow for musical flights to develop, perhaps explaining why Israel’s words are pushed back. I’ve mentioned textures above and the music seems in a constant state of flux, with the occasional epic climax, such as the ending to Iron Of The Mountain, adding to the thrill. You can only imagine that live some of these could turn into epic jams. On the record, however, the overall effect is that everything has its place and although there are only nine tracks averaging five minutes a piece, nothing outstays its welcome.
If there is an edge of anxiety that bubbles up in some of the songs there’s also the sense that Israel is embracing his new found home and the natural world around him. In the opener Woman At The Well, he sings, “Here in the valley I want to settle down, in the morning I go east and in the evening I’m westward bound.” It suggests the simple idyll of following the suns trajectory as being his sole concern. And even Through The Door counters the lonely plea I highlighted previously with, “Cast the stones aimed to break my bones, they don’t come around no more,” suggesting that Israel has found his sanctuary.
The CD package is lovely too, illustrated with animals and flowers, with a curious prop contained within that perhaps highlights the headiness of the music. Yes, this is music that knows no bounds, rich and complex and just a little mysterious. But the pleasure of a mystery is surely to unravel its secrets. As the album unfolds, there are clearly many happy hours ahead to be spent in pursuit of that particular goal.
Who knows where Israel Nash Gripka will head next, either geographically or artistically, but if this is overdrive, then I guess we’ve still got the afterburners to go!
Review by: Simon Holland
Album Stream (via Deezer)
Oct 11 Prince Albert, Brighton,
Oct 12 The Pumphouse, Aldeburgh
Oct 13 Water Rats, London,
Full tour dates and ticket links here