Rachel’s was one of the more welcome surprises to come out of the North American post-rock scene. Essentially a chamber group augmented by a rock drummer and guitarist, the ensemble from Louisville felt more affected by the work of Dvorak and Pärt than anything happening in the ‘90s-era indie world that supported them. The attention and acclaim that that group received certainly helped push against the rockist tendencies of the time and helped nudge open the doors to more grandiose groups like Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
Most rock musicians who've tried to take a flyer at classical music (or something like it) approach their compositions from a position of bombast (Emerson, Lake & Palmer), melodrama (Paul McCartney), high drama (Elvis Costello), or purposeful eccentricity (Frank Zappa). But as pianist and composer with the groundbreaking ensemble Rachel's, Rachel Grimes showed it was possible to combine the sensibilities and tonal palettes of indie rock and chamber music in a way that flattered both styles and embraced their best qualities, and she's continued to do so in her solo work. Grimes' second proper solo album, 2015's The Clearing, collects 11 short pieces (one just over a minute, another eight times that length) that Grimes first adapted from her own piano improvisations and then arranged using small ensembles of strings, woodwinds, and percussion.
On Rachel Grimes’s album The Clearing, six of the 11 songs have the word “Air” in the title. It’s misleading to say that the music “soars”, but it also doesn’t spend a lot of its time on the ground either. Being a member of the chamber pop group Rachel’s (fans of the band have told me that they did not pick that name because of Grimes), pianist Rachel Grimes belongs to a niche of composers who are working to further the neoclassical style within the indie pop world.
After Rodan, a Louisville post-hardcore band that wracked the raw Slint template with mathy tangles, the late guitarist Jason Noble made a natural transition to the more atmospheric Rachel's. They were ahead of the curve on integrating chamber music with post-rock, and even further ahead on drawing inspiration from 20th-century minimalism rather than older classical music. With the addition of key members Christian Frederickson on viola and Rachel Grimes on piano, they were just in front of Godspeed and just behind Dirty Three, whom they resembled in their lonesome, ramshackle temperament.
Rachel Grimes has always been a musician somewhat out of step with what’s going on around her. When she formed Rachel’s in Louisville, Kentucky at the start of the 90s with Rodan’s Jason Noble, it was a city with a proud and cherished hardcore and independent past. Not just Rodan, but Slint, Bastro and Retsin to name but four – all bands who while knowing their way around a quiet moment, also knew how to turn up the volume to ear-splitting levels.
As part of the indie chamber ensemble Rachel’s, pianist-composer Rachel Grimes helped popularize orchestral instruments in the world of rock. Her band paved the way for such groups as Godspeed You! Black Emperor, who brought thundering compositions to kids raised thinking that orchestral music belonged in symphony halls, attended by their parents. But whereas later groups tended to incorporate classical instruments into the noise, Rachel’s always kept the arrangements of a more traditional ensemble, even as later albums broadened the band’s scope far beyond the neo-modernist compositions of the early albums.