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The Haul: Rachel Grimes' Book of Leaves

A few months prior to this visit, I’d wondered what was up in the world of Rachel’s. Since 2003’s superb Systems/Layers, their lone release was the Technology Is Killing Music EP, a scattershot eighteen-minute-long track in the spirit of the postmodern musings of its predecessor but lacking its emotional resonance. They had performed Systems/Layers with the SITI company in Urbana, Illinois in 2005, but since then, their only news items had been appearances on soundtracks like Hancock. (Director Peter Berg, who also helmed the Friday Night Lights film and still oversees the unbelieveably great Friday Night Lights television show, is no stranger to post-rock, having introduced the sporting world to Explosions in the Sky.) Last spring there were rumblings of a forthcoming Shipping News album, but those took a back seat to more pressing news.

As I mentioned on Twitter in the fall, Jason Noble’s been battling cancer since the late summer. You can read more about it on his Caring Bridge blog, and send him well-wishes. (Note: The donate link on the site appears to donate to Caring Bridge, not Jason Noble directly. They do provide an excellent service, but it’s worth noting.) I’ve only met Jason Noble once, at the Fugazi/Shipping News/Rachel’s show in Louisville back in 2002, but he was awfully nice to someone who was obnoxiously gushing at the time. Between Rodan’s Rusty, Shipping News’ Very Soon and in Pleasant Company, and Rachel’s Systems/Layers, he’s made some of my favorite music. I hope he continues to handle the treatment well and doesn’t suffer any setbacks. Get well soon, Jason.

In light of this development, I feel bad for Rachel’s pianist Rachel Grimes, whose solo debut Book of Leaves came out in September with little advance press. Seeing it in Newbury Comics was the first I’d heard about it, but since Rachel’s has a solid track record—except for the harpsichord song on Selenography, shudder—I eagerly picked it up.

120. Rachel Grimes – Book of Leaves LP – Karate Body, 2009 – $22

Rachel Grimes' Book of Leaves

I had a reasonably accurate idea of what Book of Leaves would sound like—closest to Music for Egon Schiele or the minimal piano songs on Systems/Layers like “NY Snow Globe.” Although Rachel’s is a collective, the contributions of the three main members—Grimes, Noble, and viola player Christian Frederickson—are all unique enough that it’s noticeable when one takes lead on a song. I suspect that there’s a push and pull between Grimes/Frederickson and Noble for the balance between classical and rock elements, more often leaning toward the former (especially on Egon Schiele, but occasionally emphasizing the latter to great effect (“Full on Night [Recension Mix]”). What made Systems/Layers so compelling was how they circumvented this tug-of-war by choosing more postmodern approaches to song structures in lieu of their collaboration with SITI. There are more rock moments and more classical moments, but neither sticks out as much.

In a very literal sense, Book of Leaves picks up where Systems/Layers left off, since that album closed with “NY Snow Globe,” but on a broader scale, those intriguing postmodern approaches to song structures and sonics have been greatly reduced. Like Dusted mentioned, the most interesting songs are those that take off-kilter approaches: “Mossgrove” turns percussive punctuation into an absorbing drone, “Starwhite” takes the opposite approach and emphasizes the reverberating space in between chords, and “She Was Here” slates its repeated chords against field recordings. Such field recordings pop up a few other times on Book of Leaves, but more variety than just birds and insects would help the recording considerably. The other songs vary from reserved to exuberantly melodic, but my preferences lean toward the former, particularly for "The Corner Room" and “A Bed of Moss,” which closes out the album on a somber, emotional note.

Grimes’ biggest challenge was transitioning from the collective approach described above to a purely individual approach, and I don’t know if she conquered it on her first solo venture. I’ve spun Book of Leaves a number of times and too many tracks float by without clamping down, leaving me with a largely blank slate after the album’s over. I suspect that I’d like Book of Leaves more if she’d recruited a few key collaborators from the collective, but then it would essentially be another Rachel’s LP. I certainly wouldn’t mind getting another one of those, but I would also like to see how Grimes progresses as an individual performer. Hopefully one or both of these things happens.

Pressing note: The vinyl of Book of Leaves (which is in a gorgeous gatefold, by the way) was available in two editions at Newbury Comics, one with a book of sheet music (which was the case for the first 100 copies), one without. The price difference wasn’t enormous, so I opted for the sheet music. Who knows if I’ll ever practice the piano enough to actually learn these songs, but it was a unique option. This book of sheet music is still available direct from Rachel Grimes herself for $15.