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Album Review: Kris Gruen, 'Coast & Refuge'


Published January 30, 2019 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated September 28, 2021 at 3:16 p.m.

Kris Gruen, Coast & Refuge
  • Kris Gruen, Coast & Refuge

(Mother West, CD, digital, vinyl)

Sometimes you hear a piece of music and think to yourself, This is destined to be licensed for commercial use. What makes a song perfect for pushing makeup or adding dramatic flair to a juicy scene on "Riverdale" is hard to define — but you know it when you hear it.

Many tracks from Kris Gruen's 2018 album, Coast & Refuge, are likely to find new life somewhere on TV. The record is stuffed with grand, sweeping choruses and crisp, ultra-clean pop-Americana production. Gruen's tunes foster all of the most thrilling feelings — joy, triumph, catharsis, heartbreak, etc. — the same ones advertisers are so good at exploiting.

When listening to Coast & Refuge, images of good-looking twentysomethings frolicking in slow motion through open meadows and sporting earthy, casual clothing might flood your brain. In fact, American Eagle Outfitters licensed the rousing "What Brings You" for a TV spot in which attractive young models skip through fields of wildflowers and canoodle on hillsides. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Gruen is a curious figure in Vermont's music scene. The New York City transplant performed alongside Kat Wright at a Bernie Sanders rally just before the 2018 midterm elections. Locally speaking, you can't get more high profile than that. Yet the Worcester-based singer-songwriter keeps a fairly low profile, opting to hold his album-release show last August at Burlington's intimate Radio Bean rather than a larger venue.

That choice is ironic, given how damn big the sound of Coast & Refuge is. Gruen peddles a subgenre (that I coined) called "oh-core," a sound made popular under the reign of bands like Of Monsters and Men and Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes in the early 2010s. Heavily aggrandized choruses often lock into unison with a song's main instrumental melody ("What Brings You"), and unbridled "oh-oh-ohs" often accompany or stand in place of lyrically driven choruses ("Lions"). The result is a monumental, honeyed rush of musicality, often fit with strings, mallets and full rock instrumentation ("Young Hearts").

But the new record also offers quieter moments, such as the shuffling space-country ditty "Coming Down Around Me" and the shoegaze-y folk-rock duet with Cristina Taddonio "Giving It All Away." Gruen's versatility in style and emotional tone is evident throughout the record's 13 cuts.

Speaking of special guests, Gruen enlisted Swedish pop superstar Peter Morén of Peter Bjorn and John as both cowriter and vocalist for pop stomper "Every Day and Night Now." If you're not familiar with PBJ or their whistle-happy hit "Young Folks," you'll probably hear it the next time you're shopping at T.J.Maxx.

Coast & Refuge is a transcendent local album dripping with artistic and commercial appeal. Gruen's newfound mastery of the pop form deftly augments the folksy sound for which he's known.

Coast & Refuge is available at

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