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David Grubbs/Taku Unami - Failed Celestial Creatures Music Album Reviews

David Grubbs/Taku Unami - Failed Celestial Creatures Music Album Reviews

The Gastr del Sol founder melds minds with a Japanese guitarist and electronic musician who shares his skewed approach to songwriting on an album inspired by the work of novelist Atsushi Nakajima.

David Grubbs has the instincts of a gardener who prefers the thorns to the blossom. In a career that spans more than three decades, he has developed a unique language for the guitar, one that flickers between consonance and dissonance; his hooks are barbs bent at odd angles, his melodies unreliable narrators. His quirks are difficult to describe, which might be why his reviewers over the years have favored adjectives like “elliptical,” “slanted,” and “spidery” (all absolutely correct, by the way).

Grubbs attacks his songwriting in roundabout fashion. Though coherent, it tends to be slightly off, as though he’s taken rock’s classic song forms and run them through a kid’s cereal-box decoder ring. His music flows strangely, a Cubist river of hard lefts and sudden interruptions. It doesn’t sound abstracted so much as distracted, as though you were listening in on a particularly absent-minded thought process in real time. When he sings, Grubbs favors knotty prose constructions and halting cadences delivered in a genial tone that reveals faint traces of his Louisville upbringing.

This style emerged a quarter-century ago on The Serpentine Similar, the first album from Grubbs’ band Gastr del Sol, and he has since pursued it across 14 solo records and appearances on nearly 200 more. His new album, Failed Celestial Creatures, is a duo project, recorded over the course of two days in August 2017 with the Japanese guitarist and electronic musician Taku Unami. But it feels of a piece with Grubbs’ last two records under his own name, Creep Mission and Primrose, both nominal solo releases that each features a handful of guests. On all three albums, Grubbs uses the presence of collaborators to play with drones, repetition, and improvisatory interplay, taking his style to a more intuitive place.

The bulk of Failed Celestial Creatures is given over to the title track, a 21-minute meditation inspired by the musicians’ mutual fondness for the mid-century Japanese novelist Atsushi Nakajima. Notes on the album situate the song within the context of the novelist’s interest in the “failure of ritual,” which might explain its uneasy tug-of-war between mantra-like repetitions, inquisitive melodic deviations, and, ultimately, explosions of chaos. For the first third of the piece, it would be easy to miss the fact that there are two players, with Grubbs’ searching movements wreathed in a luminous fog of electronics. When his guitar is joined by Unami’s, their playing resembles a figure dancing before an enchanted mirror—a tangle of gestures that seem identical but prove, on further examination, to be entirely different. Then the distortion pedal kicks in: The final six minutes are snarling and dissonant, the guitars blackened, out-of-tune frequencies beating the air like bats’ wings.

The remainder of the album finds the two musicians locked even more deeply into their uncanny mirror-play—particularly on “Threadbare 1” through “Threadbare 4,” short, improvised pieces that make an impression as ephemeral as the wind bending high grass. Even for longtime listeners of either musician, it’s difficult to say who is doing what, engaged as they are in a questing yet relaxed mind meld. Only one song, “The Forest Dictation,” breaks from that mold, as Grubbs’ vocals take the lead atop shimmering, gently intertwined guitars. It’s the sort of performance he’s been giving since his days in Gastr del Sol: not quite singing and not quite speech, but some third option hidden in the divide between the two.

The lyrics, inspired by Nakajima’s The Moon Over the Mountain, concern a human-tiger hybrid that dwells in the forest. But, typically for Grubbs, they don’t resemble traditional lyrics so much as a page pulled at random from the library stacks—a text made musical only by virtue of his dry sing-song: “The irreversibly combined voices/Of human tiger/Recited 30 poems, some long and some short/As to their quality/I would not presume to judge.” It’s a magically low-key moment on a magically low-key album, a manifestation of the divine couched in playful but fundamentally level-headed terms. The human tiger’s two unflappable witnesses remain focused on their fretboards, fully immersed in the rapture of their craft.

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