(Mother West, CD)
Central Vermont's folk scene is populated by graying hippies trying to recapture the ancient, and often tired, sounds of yesteryear. Montpelier-based singer-songwriter Kris Gruen may play acoustic guitar, but he's hardly part of that crowd. Gruen's debut disc, Lullaby School, showcases contemporary influences from well beyond the Green Mountains. The result is an album that sounds more current than many local folk releases.
Gruen claims to have spent a lot of time listening to Iron & Wine's whisper-folk EP Woman King and Sufjan Stevens' orchestral pop masterpiece Illinois during the making of his own album. You can hear it in the finished product. Gruen's deep, hushed vocals and soft guitar work recall I&W's Sam Beam; his use of melodica, glockenspiel, cello, accordion and xylophone bears something in common with Stevens' most recent efforts.
Opening track "Tender Theory" is perhaps the disc's most immediately accessible tune, boasting chugging rhythms and a contagious melody. The song opens strong, but its full beauty isn't revealed until the entrance of an achingly emotional melodica that floats up from the background. "In the Clearing" sets Gruen's whispered libretto alongside the chiming, high-pitched notes of a glockenspiel. It's an appealing contrast.
Gruen's modernistic take on archaic folk forms is exemplified in "Further Down," which chronicles the uncertainties of moving into new stages of life. The track opens in a simple manner, with just Gruen and his guitar holding court. Later, as his vocals enter higher ranges, the song becomes embellished with drums, banjo, violin and accordions. Eventually, the tune blossoms into a complex and invigorating piece of music.
With 15 songs, Lullaby School serves up a lot of material. And, as expected with a super-sized release, some tunes are better than others. Still, a good two-thirds of the disc is highly engrossing -- a decent average for a debut. For the local folk scene, Gruen's music is a shot across the bow. Here's hoping he's got more ammunition.
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