Album Review: The Plain Where the Palace Stood by David Grubbs
Very Good, Based on 5 Critics
musicOMH.com - 70 Based on rating 3.5
The violin has a rickety relationship in rock music. Frank Zappa’s seminal Hot Rats band pulled off a rare masterstroke in the crossover courtesy of the wise licks of Don ‘Sugarcane’ Harris. But flip the coin and you find Jean Luc Ponty and Nigel Kennedy – two men trying to emulate the lead guitarist’s centre-of-attention swagger, but failing miserably.
A review of any David Grubbs release needs to come with a forewarning. When your first experience of David Grubbs is ‘Our Exquisite Replica Of ‘Eternity’’ by Gastr Del Sol (the band he co-founded with Jim O'Rourke), the chances are your expectations for anything else he does won't be anything less than genius. How a song can glide from hellish to heavenly without even giving the listener the opportunity to realise it’s happening (and to then crescendo further) is a marvel.
Working for decades in the fields of improvisation and experimental rock, there's a tendency in some press circles for David Grubbs' solo albums to be referred to as his "pop" material. With The Plain Where the Palace Stood being the sixth album of more traditionally structured songs by Grubbs, the term "pop" is only applicable as a relative label, serving to contrast the obtuse and largely instrumental fare here from his countless other collaborative releases and group experimentations. The 11 songs here are all steeped in Grubbs' uniquely sideways approach to sound, based for the most part around his fluid yet staggered guitar playing and occasional plainspoken vocals.
There is something endearingly cheeky about the way Drag City describes David Grubbs’ releases for the label as his pop albums. Little on Grubbs’ latest release will likely register as pop music, at least for any listeners who might reasonably expect that description to mean hooks, choruses, or hummable melodies. At the same time, Grubbs’ overall body of work is so expansive and unwieldy -- bridging as it does various streams of avant-rock, multi-media art, and academia-- that it would be a challenge to find any particular box to squeeze him into.
It’s no real surprise David Grubbs would name an album The Plain Where the Palace Stood, that his set would focus not on the once-standing structure but on the space where it used to be. In his solo records, and with Gastr del Sol, Grubbs has been breaking down and deconstructing all kinds of musical structures, from folk traditions to rock and punk traditions. His music can be as tuneful as it is dissonant, as ordered as it is full of negative space.