Rating:David Grubbs has the kind of wandering spirit that many musicians aim for but rarely cultivate, let alone turn into a career. From his days as a jumped-up punk in the ‘80s hardcore outfit Squirrel Bait to his collaboration with a fellow nomad Jim O’Rourke under the name Gastr del Sol to his various one-off projects and guest appearances on friends’ albums, the guitarist rarely sits still. It’s a wonder he was able to find the time to finish his Ph.D.
That kind of approach tends to lead to a restlessness in many of the recordings that feature either his name alone or, as with this release, in conjunction with others. That can often work to his advantage with projects, such as his recordings with Swedish free jazz saxophonist Mats Gustafsson. But with an album such as this second collaborative effort with drummer Andrea Belfi and guitarist Stefano Pilia, without a clear stylistic focus, the musical wanderlust can get slightly uncomfortable.
By and large, Dust & Mirrors aims for a meditative state, opening with 22 minutes of material that slowly unfurls six-string melodics and high frequency electronics that shift and adjust as they spiral towards a soft landing. The moods within those two tracks change surprisingly smoothly, as on “Brick Dust,” where Pilia and Grubbs’ dueling guitar ringlets make way for a slightly agitated cymbal run by Belfi before circling back again to the pensive mood of its opening moments.
As the album moves forward, the trio keeps veering to and fro. “The Distance, Cut” begins on a lovely American Primitive vibe before the steely guitar lines are interrupted by a stuttering drum part and an electric guitar line that reads like arena rock. Even more ‘70s AOR is the guitar line that anchors “The Headlock.” Never before would I have taken Grubbs or Pilia for Rush fans, but the hook is right out of the Alex Lifeson playbook.
But again, what is an outtake from Moving Pictures doing residing among the experimental wanderings of the rest of the LP? Heck, even the next song is a long instrumental of denatured guitar chords and noise that sounds like someone trying to get a ’65 Buick to turn over.
A mercurial approach to an album isn’t a bad thing by any means. Considering the abilities of the members of the group and the many different scenarios and genres they have performed within, it was probably to be expected that this second full-length wouldn’t have been able to sit still for very long.
But I submit to you that the greater challenge would have been to try to sustain a singular mood for the entirety of the album, making slight adjustments and offering small changes in temperament and tempo as need be. As it stands, I keep portioning out Dust & Mirrors and imagining it as a series of EPs rather than receiving it in one big chunk.