Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Grains, Cranes, Centre of Wood

To judge solely from his MySpace page, ex-Ubzub guitarist Rob Williams seems to have already condemned himself--along with his new solo project, Grains-- to a life of obscurity, underappreciation, and generalized sadsackism. It’s hard not to feel sorry for a man who describes himself as “some depressed guy playing repetitive riffs on an acoustic guitar,” and who cites “depression, sadness, heartache, misfortune, despair, failure, rejection, alienation, [and] repetition,” among other downward spirals, as his chief musical influences -- though these freely-given histrionics don’t exactly draw us in either. And they might even be unforgivable if “Cranes,” his new full-length CDR, didn’t somehow manage to sublimate all this melancholy into something that is ultimately so uplifting and invigorating.

False advertising aside, Williams’ reference to “repetitive riffs” is dead-on. Among its many regressive fascinations, “Cranes” is built around a sensation that anyone who has ever picked up a guitar for the first time and tried to plunk out the first few chords of “Stairway to Heaven” can identify with: our inexplicable urge to pick out lines of quarter-notes and half-notes and insist upon them, to mark musical time with a running and geometric regularity, mapping it, carving it out, making its ours. “Cranes” returns to this elementary impulse--perhaps the musical equivalent of sucking one’s thumb?--and recasts it as a compositional building block, exploring the changing feeling-plateaus that arise from modifications in rhythm, color, and urgency. Whether they are as gentle as a lightly-creaking cradle or as cutting as a jackhammer, Williams’ down-tuned acoustic guitar patterns always seem to bring out what is most obsessive, obstinate, and habit-forming in the musical act of repetition.

But Grains never lets the gloom loom for long. Plucked guitar counterpoint, synthetic wood-block percussion, slumberous vocals, and the occasional feedback explosion furnish this long road to nowhere with its necessary escape routes, nudging it slowly towards transformation--even its base patterns never concretely change. It is impossible to identify the moments where even the album’s darkest moments transform into something verging on euphoria, but they always do, and only when you give up trying to look for them. Like the diminutive online Rob Williams himself, “Cranes” is not asking for your undivided attention. But it may be one of the most gorgeous pieces of music you’ve heard in a long time if you leave it on, go about your daily routine, and allow it to creep up on you.

Words: Emilie Friedlander

Originally published on Foxy Digitalis, July 2009