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A Guess At the Riddle

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Album Review

On A Guess at the Riddle, David Grubbs reunites with his Rickets & Scurvy collaborator Rick Moody, and once again, folk and folk-rock form the backbone of the pair's elliptically literate songs. In a way that parallels the career of his former Gastr del Sol mate Jim O'Rourke, Grubbs' solo work remains balanced between experimentalism and pop, although he doesn't always explore both sides of his music on each of his releases. Though there's nothing on A Guess at the Riddle that's as immediately ingratiating as Rickets & Scurvy's "Transom" (although the sweet "One Way Out of the Maze" comes close), on this album Grubbs clearly enjoys taking his listeners into the nooks and crannies, as well as the open spaces of his music, while remaining rooted in relatively traditional, song-oriented material. The first half of A Guess at the Riddle is so straightforward, in fact, that listeners waiting for songs like "Knight Errant" and the Mayo Thompson-penned "Magnificence as Such" to get weird will miss out on their down-to-earth loveliness. The musical simplicity of these songs provides a foil to their lyrical complexity; even the lyrics Moody didn't have a hand in writing are still extremely literary. "A Cold Apple"'s "Hilda bit a cold apple/On an equally cold/On an equally bright/Absolutely sunshot/To-be-savored Sunday morning/In North Carolina/In 1950-something" could just as easily start a short story as it begins this pretty folk-rock celebration of a long and happy marriage. However, like Rickets & Scurvy, the album's music becomes more experimental as it unfolds. The elongated musings of "The Neophyte" and the computer-generated guitar drones of "Rosie Ruiz" set the stage for "You'll Never Tame Me," a brief but odd vignette that mixes instantly recognizable click-and-pop percussion by Matmos with Grubbs' plaintive voice and piano. Nevertheless, even A Guess at the Riddle's most experimental moments, such as the serenely mysterious closing track, "Coda (Breathing)," remain largely gentle and quiet, aside from the slightly abrasive electronics (also courtesy of Matmos) that overtake "Hurricane Season." But even though the album doesn't offer — or promise — any overt shocks to the system, its subtle, slow-building blend of the traditional and the challenging is still remarkably effective.

Biography

Born: 21 September 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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A Guess At the Riddle, David Grubbs
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