A Date with Larkin Grimm's Forthcoming Record

2012 will see the release of Larkin Grimm's fourth album, Soul Retrieval. A follow up to Parplar—that delightfully intimidating (and occasionally creepy) document of brutal truth and compassionate destruction—Toilet Guppies' expectations were set impossibly high. But like Devendra Banhart moved on to make less edgy, but in other ways more accomplished music upon splitting with intense producer M. Gira, Larkin Grimm has delivered a heavily instrumented, but ultimately more uplifting record after slipping out from under the influence of that same producer. The venom and bite has given way somewhat to a perfection of craftsmanship.

Soul Retrieval opens with a slew of folk songs with traditional acoustic instruments quite often playing untraditional arrangements, but nonetheless maintaining an overall rootsy Americana feel. «Paradise and so Many Colors» is a soft and soothing opener that turns into a hearty folk romp replete with cherubic joy. «Flash and Thunder Came to Earth» is—ironically, considering the title—the closest Grimm has come to progressive kindergarten muzak, all flutes, harp and lullaby melody. «The Butcher», one of Grimm's most eloquent compositions, known from her exquisite 2008 WFMU session (and also as a collaboration with Italian trio Rosolina Mar on African relief aid benefit CD Leaves of Life), is revisited and given a more uptempo, instrumented treatment that would be good, had we not already heard two superior versions. «The Road Is Paved with Leaves» offers a languid country soul feel, whereas «Be a Great Burglar» veers into Middle Eastern territory. They're both well executed, but fail to stir the confronting emotions and uncomfortable insights that made Parplar such a crushing beauty.

So far, then, Soul Retrieval is underwhelming. But then the song with the most promising title—«Dirty Heart, Dirty Mind»—comes on, a track less dense with instruments, but with eerie strings that flutter and stab at just the right moments. This is fairytale feel Grimm as we know and love her—who intimidates (and thrills!) us so. Then «Lying in a Pool of Milk» accepts the preceding song's challenge, offering an equally pared down, orchestrally atmospheric performance with perhaps the new songs' first stand out lyric, making you stop to take notice:
«Fuck that child, oh, fuck that child!»
One of Grimm's strongest qualities has always been her fearlessness and liberated pagan perspective, seeing past the Manichaean or Judeo-Christian «good» versus «evil» dualism that so oversimplifies and paralyses. Not that «fuck that child» is a call to pederasty, but most artists simply wouldn't have gone there, whether for lack of imagination, humour or balls.

The next track, «Hello, Pool of Tears» is an embellished rendition of one of the gems off her WFMU session, «One Sweet Drop». Again, the strings flit and sting as the main melody floats mellifluously along, a river beset by killer bees. Finally, a fourth song extends and ends the good run:

Album closer «I Am Not Real» confirms that Grimm is at her best when toned down and minimal almost to the point of mantras. The lyrics are a return to a more immediately accessible spirituality, the melody flowing with easily understood (but perhaps hard won) ways of viewing reality. (Good luck finding that on Pitchfork.) Mysticism is hard to pull off, demanding as it does a certain restraint and balance, lest it devolve into indulgent jiggery pokery for yoga feminists and the ponytailed, all clad in purple and on the run from sex and meat, eating, praying and loving it up all over the place. Thankfully, Grimm elegantly sidesteps the traps, and is never far from contrasting the rainbow-coloured unicorns playing with dolphins under a full moon with some visceral human urge, base and natural. «I am not real» is not an insight from the motivational self-help New Age healing industry. That said, it does provide soul—metaphorically speaking, of course—that you'd be hard pressed to find among the inane reflections of all the ambitious artists out there who only write lyrics because their stylish front person needs an excuse to do all that posturing with their hands and hair.

Soul Retrieval might not be the doozy Parplar was, but where the latter was a bit too long—a bit too much in places—the former keeps it short and sweet. (The last half being particularly dulcet.) And while Gira's production on Parplar was crisp and creepy, imbuing psychosis with lucidity, it could also be overwrought with overdubs. Grimm's own mixing is softer, every sound hidden in the same place (as opposed to competing for primacy). There's about as much going on, strings flowing and pricking, glockenspiel twinkling, but the instruments are understated. Soul Retrieval is also a very acoustic album. No hard brass, sexed guitars or brute percussion. Guitar strings are picked rather than forcefully strummed, and the string arrangements are downright psychoactive. Outside of Gira's brilliant, but primitivistic determination, Grimm's vision is allowed to breathe. Apart from showcasing her subtle, but sophisticated production values—heard through a headset, the album is the sweetest ear candy—Soul Retrieval boasts elegant and inventive arrangements, fine, fine and refined. These are the kind of recordings that grow with each listen. Which is to say buying it is a smart investment.

On her first two albums, Grimm had the tendency to get histrionic, sometimes for better, quite a few times for worse, howling like a banshee being treated to an icy bath by Freud and Jung. Perhaps she's more skilled now, as she relies less on energy and more on craft on this new release. It's one step forward, which is all you can ask of a new album, really.

Besides, pure mathematics state that half a great album makes one good album, so look out for it once it hits stores and whatnot in January or February. Provided you have a soul to retrieve, the four last songs will give you hours of joy, relief and support. You can't say that about Vampire Weekend or Sleigh Bells or whoever it is who's being blogged about this week. (Present blog excluded. Naturally.)

P.S. Should you require added incentive for buying the record, backing vocals on Soul Retrieval come courtesy of Clara Engel (among others), who Toilet Guppies had the pleasure of previewing in March. Also, renowned rock producer Tony Visconti, of Iggy Pop and, er, David Bowie fame, contributes some instrumentation (recorder!) and a little production assistance on the album. Otto Hauser, drummer for more artists than anyone would care to mention, but who has played with Devendra Banhart, Vetiver and James Jackson Toth, also plays on this one.

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