In another e-magazine, as is the wont of so many forums, I named my roster of "best" picks for 2006 and have several times kicked my own rear for not having heard a small clutch of CDs that should've made it to that list. This one, though in a completely different genre, is the equal of the very striking One Ensemble's Wayward the Fourth, which points unequivocally to a new avenue for progrock. The Guggenheim Grotto likewise boasts a deeply progressive streak but in a highly contrasted direction, more properly resting its bowler on the gorgeously mellifluous strains America, Mickey Newberry, Tim Buckley, Nick Drake, Simon & Garfunkel, and the Necks imbued various of their releases with. "Waltzing Alone", among myriad virtues, is rich with low-key symphonic gestures echoing in the distance. Appropriate to the sparse sonic environment, there isn't actually a speck of any such accompaniment anywhere on the disc, but one nonetheless hears it invisibly crooning its absence on more than one cut -- of course, the occasional presence of a Chamberlin amends that slightly.
I mention the Necks because of that ensemble's marrow-deep desire to evolve whatever they tackle, but sometimes in restrained fashion, as with the monumental Sex, a masterpiece which took up where Traffic's Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys left off. Guggenheim Grotto commences in the same frame of mind, though not the same mode, blending an extraordinarily mature mixture of pop, folk, emo, soft rock, and lament. Kevin May, the composer, is on the order of a Mike Scott quaaluded through Mark Hollis and Tim Friese-Greene. A cutting blend of sincerity and wistfulness pierce nearly ever track, though a few are more light-hearted. The duet vocals of May and Mick Lynch are extraordinarily complementary, hauntingly engaged by female backing vox on such cuts as "Ozymandias", and often precisely attentive to timbral contrasts.
Perhaps the heart of the release is Koan, a cut inspired by Leonard Cohen via a line of advice May read issuing from Cohen's roshi—"Leonard, you should sing more sad!"—an instruction both ironic and profound, repeated throughout the cut. Delia Dulson's cello provides mournful bottom sediment while Lynch provides a viola line wafting above. Vertigo contains a more propulsive atmosphere, kind of like Sergio Mendes and Innocence Mission connubially entwined in a halfway house, while the organ in Wonderful Wizard jazzes things up a mite, with souled female vocals pining in the rear of the mix. There are literary references ("your Edgar Allen crow" is a particularly good one) and a generous helping of sad ruminations, often perfectly set in matrices of shimmering melancholia, sometimes affectingly betraying the happier melodies with a sly nod.
The CD's packaging is as elegant as the music, a maroon leather-clad book silvered with a lone stamped scarecrow image haunting its center. The tome opens to a multi-page collection of Internet audience input, song lyrics, line-drawn cartoons, and the musicians' comments on each track. Nic Harcourt, well-known as a DJ out here in Glitter City, called this "one of the most beautiful records of the year", but he was off by nine years: it's one of the most gorgeous of the decade.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
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