(Mother West, CD)
There is a fallacy in rock ’n’ roll that vitality, innovation and edginess are the domain of the young. True, the industry tends to favor youth and, often more importantly, beauty. But there is something to be said for experience. Nuance, depth and worldly wisdom can only be gained through accumulating years. While fresh-faced youngsters can offer base titillation, few moments in music are more thrilling than witnessing a veteran songwriter reach the peak of his or her powers. Montpelier’s Kris Gruen has done just that with his second album, Part of It All. A follow-up to his promising 2007 debut, Lullaby School, the sophomore effort finds Gruen harnessing his considerable skills and establishing himself as one of the state’s finest pop craftsmen.
The title track opens the record. Lithe guitars skip through dissonant changes and set the scene for Gruen. “Stone in my plow, bread from the grain / Best of your words running deep down in my vein,” he sings with playful bravado. But it’s a setup, and we get our first glimpse of his seasoned acumen. What begins as a breezily familiar melody explodes into a purposeful march at the chorus. Where Lullaby School featured mostly acoustic arrangements, here Gruen expands his sonic palate with an arsenal of electric accoutrements.
The airy, melancholy “Euphoria” is next. Gruen is sagacious, delivering sly poetics with breathy charm, while backing musicians waltz sounding dazed and amused behind him.
“Memoir” ratchets up the intensity with alt-rock zeal. “Dunroven’s Farm” is country-road sweetness. Fans of Norwegian pop songsmith Sondre Lerche will no doubt enjoy the hazy, unpredictable “White Flag.”
The record hits a lull at “Wasted on the Young,” which veers a little too close to schmaltzy world-pop for comfort. The next track, “Activist,” resembles Mason Jennings at his most self-righteous.
The gently churning “Red Doors” rescues the album from its brief malaise. “In the park beneath the arch, that’s where I chased those girls / With teeth on top of my lips, I ran then rested in their curls,” Gruen croons with nostalgic whimsy.
“Home” is a clever, vivacious, accordion-led romp, which leads into “Driving Snow” and the record’s graceful benediction, “Of Cordoban Kings (Abderrahman III).”
Artfully conceived and expertly executed, Part of It All is nearly a masterstroke. Sophisticated, spirited and cunning, Kris Gruen is, undoubtedly, a master.
Gruen celebrates with an album release party at the Higher Ground Showcase Lounge this Friday. Burlington faves Lendway and Lowell Thompson & Crown Pilot join in.