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.
So when the first blast of Burning Star Core member and guest C Spencer Yeh’s violin erupts on the opening title track of sometime Bastro and Gastr Del Sol frontman David Grubbs’ sixth solo album The Plain Where The Palace Stood, alarm bells begin to sound. Going for maximum squeak and high-strung torture, the violin is employed to grate against the largely unambitious song as Grubbs locks into a deadly riff pushed along by the breathless drumming of Andrea Belfi. Luckily, the song is put out of its misery after five minutes. And the violin is returned to its case, never to defile this otherwise lovely disc again.
From this point on, you can divide the album into two parts: songs with lyrics and the instrumentals. While the instrumentals are immaculate and well-devised, it’s the rather understated singing and off-the-wall lyrics of Grubbs that impress.
On I Started To Live When My Barber Died, Grubbs manages to turn tongue-in-cheek lyrics into a masterclass in introspection, as he recounts a tale about his first favourite song. “I started to live when my barber died,” Grubbs recalls, singing “my hair went curly, my sideburns went wide”. As a tale, it neatly works as a reflection on vanity, but also a knock on the naysayers, as he calmly hits out: “I don’t age/ I don’t/ The style does/ I don’t depart from this date.”
And it’s true. Each one of Grubbs’ solo discs has employed most of the same elements. Chiefly, this is Grubbs’ fleet-fingered and slinky smooth guitar playing that involves counterpoint, repetition, the right amount of reverb and distortion, and a sense of total command. And although he shares the stage with Belfi and fellow guitarist Stefano Pilia, the music is still dominated by Grubbs’ guitar, whether it’s the Robert Fripp-like drone opening to First Salutation or the Thurston Moore-esque staccato riff on Super-Adequate.
If there is a complaint – aside from the tacky aforementioned violin – it’s that Grubbs doesn’t let rip more often, either with this guitar or his material. Many of the songs threaten to go nowhere. Certainly, Second Salutation achieves that billing as it fails to be anything other than a preparatory sketch of a guitar noodle. But these moments of zen-like nothingness are saved by his deft playing on tunes such as Abracadrabrant with its back-to-front structure as the reverb-heavy guitar shoots out of the traps before fizzling out before the end.
But then in the space of the 2:17 dirge of Fugitive Colors, Grubbs manages to fuse a vacillating and raw riff combining with his ragged vocals to create a moody masterpiece.
Throughout, Belfi’s drumming – which only features on about half of the songs – is superb, pushing tunes that have prematurely run out of steam into more magical statements as well as expanding Grubbs’ palette into more kinetic regions. The quiet, pulsing high-hat on the opening of Third Salutation is enough to make the tune shimmer as it searches for a destination.
This is not Grubbs’ best solo album by a long shot. Look for Rickets & Scurvy or An Optimist Notes The Dusk if you only get one. But for those who have enjoyed Grubbs’ wide-ranging career and don’t mind taking a 45-minute detour into the mind of a clearly talented guitarist and singer (complete with painful violin), The Plain Where The Palace Stood is good enough to demonstrate how great Grubbs can be when he hits the mark. And those moments are always intriguing to hear.