Somnambule - Writing About Music

David Grubbs ~ A Guess At The Riddle

David Grubbs is probably best know for his partnership with Jim O’Rourke and a shifting pool of musicians (including members of Tortoise) as Gastr Del Sol. The group split up in 1997 and since then he’s been pretty prolific – A Guess At The Riddle is the singer’s eleventh release in seven years. Those recordings have been alternately instrumental (with Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustaffson a frequent collaborator) and song-based. A Guess At The Riddle sits in the latter camp, though it ends with a chilling windscape called Coda (Breathing). The sound is predominantly indie and guitar-based although if you’re not a fan of such music, please don’t let that description put you off because structure and instrumentation are notably playful. This is indie inspired by the rolling rhythms and lyrical inventiveness of The Velvet Underground’s Live 1969 recordings. It may be Grubbs’ confessional, direct address which sparks such comparisons.

A glance at the Kim Hiorthoy designed cd cover will immediately reveal the particular riddle, if not the answer, to which the title refers– a stylised skull peeks from behind a large cape. The design is entirely appropriate to the album’s music and lyrics which also essay a light approach to serious preoccupations. Perhaps the first thing to strike any new listener to Grubbs’ songs is the artist’s voice which at times sounds youthful and innocent and at other times world-weary and pathos-ridden (sometimes both aspects are audible in a single line). Subject matter resists easy interpretation, as with Hurricane Season whose lyrics were written by author Rick Moody (author of The Ice Storm):

"Hurricane season, humoured with regrets,
Barometric swoon, seagulls and egrets
Tonight, in the monsoon
Hurricane town, bleached white
Under black convectionary clouds, Breed the gymnasium brown
Windows taped with crosses, like All Souls night
Refrain with a vengeance, we know the rain dance..."

The air of foreboding detectable in this lyric is emblematic of much of A Guess At The Riddle which, although initially upbeat and carefree sounding, becomes increasingly serious the more intently it’s listened to. Guest musicians include members of Mice Parade and Matmos who pay Grubbs a return visit (he appeared on last year’s The Civil War) by contributing to the drone on the above-detailed Hurrican Season as well as sundry other electronics.

Songs are like people – if you like the sound of them, you’ll want to get to know them and in so doing you’ll notice their quirks and qualities. This album is no different, it’s immediately attractive but gradually it reveals subtle layers and possibilities not initially apparent, which are singularly rewarding to explore.

Colin Buttimer
June 2004
Published by Milkfactory