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An Optimist Notes the Dusk

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Album Review

We haven't heard a full-length from David Grubbs the solo artist in a little more than four years; he's spent his time issuing the odd EP here and there, appearing with Red Krayola, and making guest appearances on others recordings. An Optimist Notes the Dusk contains six tracks that clock in at a bit over 37 minutes, and the Grubbs on display here is the writer of art songs rather than the rampant free-form experimentalist, with one exception: "Not So Distant," the album's final and longest cut. For most of this set, Grubbs relies on his idiosyncratic sense of melody and accompanies himself on guitar with a drum kit on three cuts and a muted trumpet on two others. His songwriting, while it may look conventional on the surface, such as on "Gethsemani Night" which opens the set, is far from it. There are verses and choruses, but the arrangement of melody in some hummable fashion is absent here. In fact, Grubbs plays a gentle but pointillistic lyric line on his six-string, using off-kilter breaks in his tentative expressionist narrative to achieve the feeling of a skeletal tone poem whenever Nate Wooley's muted trumpet enters the mix. Open-tuned strings offer minor-key and shadowed reflections to commence "An Optimist Declines," when drummer Michael Evans enters, it feels almost like a creeping, halting duet between Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and drummer Steve Shelley, with some straining organ and modal power chords to take it out over the course of seven minutes. "Holy Fool Musing" feels more like a proper rockist jam, with drums and guitars skittering across the middle ground and some dramatic stops and starts to give it a middle period Meat Puppets kind of feel. It's the most proper "rock song" here, and as such it's a doozy — and yes, you can hum to it (just not loudly please). Too bad it's less than three-and-a-half minutes long. "Storm Sequence" is an instrumental where sparse percussion and tension round off angular, electric guitar lines. An organ enters near the end to give the track an elegiac feel. "Eyeglasses of Kentucky" is another unaccompanied Grubbs' vocal with his electric guitar. But this track moves in a labyrinthine way from shifting time and almost taut pauses. The set closes with the nearly 12-minute long droning ambient instrumental "Not So Distant." With its low-register organ keys, subdued feedback, freely floating noise pulsations, and abstraction carrying the day, it lets the listener know that Grubbs can still be a totally weird — and slightly sinister — composer, but it's a killer piece. In sum, this is a collection that does not define Grubbs in any hard and fast way, but merely showcases his particularly idiosyncratic vision, his sophistication as a composer and sound sculptor, and expands his already long reach. Let's hope it won't be another four years before we get another outing like this one.


Born: September 21, 1967 in Louisville, KY

Genre: Alternative

Years Active: '00s, '10s

Brooklyn-based guitarist/pianist/vocalist David Grubbs made a major impact on the indie music scene during a ten-year residence in Chicago. Originally hailing from Louisville, Kentucky, he was a member of Bastro, and Squirrel Bait before teaming up with Jim O'Rourke in Gastr del Sol. That band issued a number of critically acclaimed albums in the mid-'90s before O'Rourke split to pursue solo projects and focus on his Drag City boutique label Moikai. Grubbs first solo album of his own was released...
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