Sunday, January 11, 2009

Album Review: A "Happy" Grotto

"She used to say about love that it should come from above and it should come from below/She used to say, 'My love, wear the lips of a saint and the hips of a whore.'" (from "Her Beautiful Ideas")

I was vaguely familiar with The Guggenheim Grotto when I decided to check them out in person. What a wise decision that turned out to be. Throughout two generous sets, Kevin May and Mick Lynch filled the room with their superb harmonies and skilled instrumental accompaniment. And yes, they came prepared with lots of quality material. I asked Kevin if he and Mick were looking for any blogosphere buzz, and Kevin offered me the duo's current album Happy The Man for review. Accepting it turned out to be another wise decision.

The stripped-down singer/songwriter duo I heard and saw in person is rarely to be found on Happy The Man. First of all, one Shane Power was also a member of the Grotto when this album was recorded. Secondly, the Dublin-based band recruited a substantial supporting cast to assist in the record's creation; the ethereal guest vocals of singer/songwriter Jenny Lindfors are particularly prominent. And while the Grotto's sound is based in British and North American folk/pop, Happy The Man is fleshed out with elements of electronica, rock, traditional Irish music, and whatever else the lads could throw in to mix things up a bit. While this sort of experimentation could have made for an overblown mess, Happy The Man always stays down-to-earth and never loses its focus on Mick and Kevin's songs and harmonies.

After seeing the album's title, not to mention the promotional blurbs describing it as "upbeat," one might be surprised to find a collection of songs concerned mostly with sadness, loss, and resignation. But these tracks often succeed through contrast. "Sunshine Makes Me High" opens with a dark sludge of compressed drums and menacing bass, then conjures up images of a joyful free spirit. The matter-of-fact lyrics of "Fee Da Da Dee" are delivered in a most uplifting manner, while every aspect of "The Dragon" combines whimsy and tragedy so equally as to make each listen a different emotional experience. The closing track, "Heaven Has A Heart," pretty much sums up the tone of the album: "I'm not saying, 'Don't fall in love... don't reach for the stars...' But everyone should know that heaven has a heart of stone."

Put simply, this is one of the most beautiful albums I've ever heard. One of the most consistent, too: don't bother trying to find the throwaway tracks because there aren't any. The Guggenheim Grotto are on tour in the United States right now, and Happy The Man (released in the US on UFO Music) is available at shows and on iTunes. Physical copies hit stores on January 27th. There's never been a better time to get your Grotto on.

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Copyright © 2009 S.J. Dibai. All rights reserved.

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