Reviews

From The Riverfront Times, by Christian Schaeffer (5/2/13)

Biblical prophets, Irish poets and American songwriters have all used the image of a wheel inside a wheel to speak toward some larger unity — of many moving parts operating in a unified sphere. It’s hard to know what Kevin Buckley is referencing with the title of his third LP, Wheel Within a Wheel, but it’s tempting to look at the cyclical nature of his musical evolution. His upbringing in the Irish folk community, at home and abroad, has always informed his more rock-driven albums New Sense and Gunmetal Gray, but so did albums by the Kinks and Guided by Voices and Sonic Youth. But with this new album and a new cast of supporting musicians, Buckley spins the wheel back around to his acoustic folk roots. Instead of the Irish jigs and reels, though, the record shows a thoroughly American form of songcraft — gentle, bucolic, effortlessly tuneful, but made up of many moving parts.

In his notes on the release of Wheel, Buckley writes of the “heavy and methodical” approach he and his then-bandmates took on 2009’s Gunmetal Gray and the inherent difficulty in marrying loud guitar, bass and drums with his strong but tonally nuanced voice. This time around, there’s no such noise to rise above: Drums and bass are kept mostly out of the way, and steel guitar, banjo and Buckley’s trusty fiddle fill in the gaps. The rootsy progressions on acoustic guitar and layered harmony vocals of “We’re Gonna Rock This Town” lead to some charming dissonance with its Kiss-worthy title. Those Irish roots show through on “The Almoner” and the banjo-and-bodhrán breakdown in “Water Flowing Over a Mountain.” Buckley and his guests, including Ian Walsh and Eileen Gannon, have such comfort and dexterity with traditional styles and tunes that these tracks feel less like songs and more like sessions. Luckily that sense of pop panache that made the first two Grace Basement records such local exemplars of the form is still in play — note the one-man doo-wop sway on opening track “The Way to Be” or the Rubber Soul nods on “Warmest Winter Clothes.” It’s the LP’s quietest moment, though, that shows the most growth. “Midnight Melody” lopes along like a lullaby but hits its honeyed marks with absolute precision. The song serves as a reminder that as Buckley gets quieter, his songs dig deeper and ring more true.

 

From Eleven Magazine (4/13)By Evan Sult

Grace Basement
Wheel Within a Wheel
Avonmore Records
Judging from listings for local venues, Grace Basement could easily go unnoticed in the stories of great St. Louis bands—they almost never perform live. But if a future musicologist were to judge the quality of early 21st century music in St. Louis based on its recorded output, Grace Basement would surely be one of the bands at the pinnacle of the list.
Grace Basement is one of many outlets for multi-instrumentalist Kevin Buckley, who also plays Irish music around town and lends assistance to many other STL musicians both as supporting player and as recording engineer at his own Avonmore Studio. He shows up onstage at KDHX benefit shows, at the Shanti, and with Ian Walsh at McGurk’s, brandishing fiddle, banjo, guitar, lap steel, you name it.
But Grace Basement isn’t a folk project. If you define pop music as any music which can be traced back to The Beatles (as I do), Grace Basement is a pop band in the best sense. Starting with 2007’s New Sense through 2009’s incredible Gunmetal Gray to the brand new Wheel Within a Wheel, Grace Basement is a master class in exquisitely crafted harmonies, sweeping melodies, and lyrical deftness. And beyond all the big talk: it’s just super satisfying to listen to.
Gunmetal Gray yielded ten great examples of rock-studded pop muscle, especially opener “There He Goes” and extra-especially the bouncing, perfect “Bad Design,” with its classic trick of shading sunny melodies with dark-shot lyrics. That album feels like a celebration of life and its complexities, as on the hopeful “Warships,” where he pictures a world in which “all the warships started sinking on their own.”
Wheel Within a Wheel is a more intimate record, both in its instrumentation and its lyrical content. As always, the production (Buckley’s own) is impeccable and intricately textured, even as it tends toward the acoustic spectrum. The musical co-conspirator list contains some of the city’s finest, including Ian Walsh, David Anderson, Bob Breidenbach and Greg Lamb, all of whom are folded seamlessly into the album’s rich musical breadth. Buckley’s amazingly smooth vocal delivery is reminiscent of Paul Simon’s in its quietly crushing lyrics and soft power, particularly on melancholic tracks like “The Way to Be” and “Live Forever.” When the electric does kick in on songs like “Warmest Winter Clothes,” the songs light up into gorgeous multi-part harmonies and tight pop curves.
There’s a quality to Buckley’s voice, a hushed texture, that comes across as touchingly human without losing a speck of technique or tone. He has an unerring sense of melody, and the harmonies are so pleasing that they can create both a smile and a bittersweet lump in the throat at the same moment.
And mortality is very much the subject of this album, a passing from the golden, leaf-dappled light into the darkness. There is much talk of reaching the furthest shore, or passing from here to another place. I’d like to think this means Buckley is thinking less of death and more of a change of scenery, but I worry for him a little bit—with songs this powerful, the job is to get them heard far and wide, not to disappear into the darkness too soon.
Kevin Buckley is a musical wonder of truly rare capacity. Wheel Within a Wheel contains a heartbreaking secret in its songs, and I hope, as most of these songs do, that the act of releasing them extends their power from the now into the eternal. For myself, I believe it will. Evan Sult
Grace Basement celebrates their record release at Off Broadway May 3.