One of the things that stands out immediately on Jared Grabb’s new album, Masters, is that it feels like someone playing in their living room (or yours). There’s an intimacy that a lot of singer-songwriters of this type don’t manage to pull off but here is Grabb repping Peoria, IL and the whole of the Midwestern heart and soul on his latest effort.
Grabb lays down a first track that anyone who has listened to his previous work particularly with Scout’s Honor (and you should ) can readily identify. There’s a certain blues-y stomp going on here that recalls previous efforts. One area, however, that this release differs from his other efforts is that it’s mostly stripped down to the vocal and guitar and it leans on subtle (and occasionally not so subtle) accompaniment to build into some pretty sweet crescendos or sing-along parts.
An interesting thing has happened to Grabb’s vocal style now that he isn’t hollering over thumping drums and distorted guitars. The delivery here is much smoother and very reminiscent of Youth Brigade’s Shawn Stern in certain spots and then in others a lilting version of Glenn Danzig’s croon.
Songs like “Best”, “Cold, Hard World”, and “Die Young. Live Fast. Forever Free.” exhibit the latter in the vocal lines. “Best” is a charming ode to Grabb’s partner while the latter two tracks are more along the lines of laments about Midwestern life. The third in this trio of songs is also notable for not only name-checking Neil Young but also for incorporating one of his more famous riffs. In someone else’s hands this would have been a huge risk to take but for this artist it pays off.
Before leaving “Best” behind it’s worth noting the switch from Grabb’s blues-influenced numbers to something more in line with the Great Lakes Swimmers school of Americana folk-pop. It is minimalist and charming, leaving the lyrics hanging in the air for the listener to absorb. Also, it feels like a touch of violin would have been nice on this track.
Though some tracks might have been better off with some small touches and added instrumentation here and there where this album really takes off are the embellishments that are present. “Middle Years”, “Two Paths”, “Patch of Green”, and especially “You Are Home” each have some element or other that make for great listening.
For instance, the opening phrasing of “Middle Years” evokes Don McLean’s “American Pie” until it eventually unravels in a riff on Jon K. Samson’s varying pick-pluck-strum, downbeat narratives from the Canadian Midwest. The growth in Grabb’s lyrical approach is most evident on this track, “Best”, and “Wipe Your Eyes”.
“Two Paths” is a minimalist banjo-driven piece that brings Bon Iver’s more contemplative moments to mind. If you close your eyes you can almost feel the stark contrast between fireplace warmth and the cold of a cabin in winter, the scent of burning cedar and the figure in coat and toque with a beat pawnshop banjo singing, eyes closed as if in prayer melting into a chorus that you can’t help but join in.
“Patch of Green” is a trip into a modern take on some rudimentary Appalachia-Americana. It might try a little too hard to add that bluegrass element with the banjo rhythms. However, the vocal delivery soars and redeems any minor luster lost to any uncomplicated instrumentation. The thick tone used on the guitar that drops in at the 2:50 mark to help usher out the tune adds a nice layer of lushness that dovetails nicely into follow-up track, “You Are Home”.
“You Are Home” might be the standout of the bunch. It’s catchy, charming, and just all around well-written. If there’s a “single” for the album this is it. This is the track that I will implore friends to listen to in that way that annoys just about everyone. It highlights all of the best elements of Grabb’s work and the play on varying meanings of the title throughout the lyrics is a nice touch.
While we’re peripherally talking about the sequence of the album I want to bring up the midpoint track. “Exodus” serves as a reset button in the form of a guitar playing one bright, lifting riff all while a train rolls by in the distance. Some albums misuse sound effects by not integrating them properly into tracks. Grabb does an excellent job here keeping the highly visual, soundtrack-esque aspect of the record rolling along.
“Goddamn Blessed Man” is a bit of a curveball. Grabb does this on most of his releases. He will throw a track on that seems to be the odd one in the bunch. Here, the effects on the guitar seem a little overdone perhaps in an effort to mimic or pay homage to the sound of Nick Cave. If any of the tracks on this album might be called out for potentially having been pulled from the Scout’s Honor pile this would be the one. The key and tone shift at 1:40, though, is a Jesus and Mary Chain whiplash from Bad Seeds land. If this is supposed to be a nod to his ‘90s roots then everything here makes more sense. Either way, it drips with a sincerity that makes it hard to ignore.
“Wipe Your Eyes” is Grabb’s lullaby that puts this album away in a fully satisfying fashion. He sings “little girl with such possibilities” and it’s not hard to imagine him singing it not just about the song’s protagonist but also about this album and the possibilities that could open up if enough people want to hear songs with heart from the American Heartland again. Is it simple? Yes. Is it good? Yes. The overwhelming impression Masters leaves behind is that of sincerity, integrity, and honest songwriting. If you love the Weakerthans, Ryan Adams, Rilo Kiley, and other jangly songwriters you should be in on this album.