Now, I was sad when Grizzly Bear broke up. They were one of the most influential and genre-defining bands of the first 15 years of the new millennium. Their sound defined alt-folk and was, and still is, revered by thousands of listeners and musicians. So naturally, Gregory Rhodes was a good discovery. An artist whose sound seems to be the organic continuation of what Grizzly Bear started.
Gregory Rhodes is a singer/songwriter who hails from the desolate beauty of southern Alaska, the city of Anchorage to be precise. His sound can be described on his debut release as folkish, but with many twists. A challenging sound for sure, but one that will not fail to at least compel you to find out more about who’s behind it, or maybe even to give the next song a listen, and in any case, Rhodes’s songwriting is extremely dense and rich that you’re bound to find some form of reward in experiencing it. But the admirers of this rich strain of folk music are in for an absolute treat.
The sound of ‘The Dearly Departed and the Recently Returned’ is savagely intricate. Songwriting, arrangements, performances, even the mixes themselves… you name it. There is a demanding depth to Gregory Rhodes’s music that dictates multiple listens in order to grasp the entire picture, and you’ll find, after what you may deem as enough listens, that you’re maybe halfway there. On this album are songs that are nuanced and sophisticated, difficult and confusing at times, but never excessive or unnecessary.
Starting from the beautiful album art, we are faced with a scene of a lighthouse against a stormy sea. The art is just as intimidatingly detailed as the music, with mythical and cryptic imagery that might describe the album’s core themes of death, love, religion, youth, and birth. Standout songs include the starting cut ‘The Dearly Departed’. If not for anything other than being an introduction to this album’s density, the song is bustling and exciting, with clanging, crowded rhythms, engaging, jazzy compositions, and a hectic, multi-faceted arrangement that features unconventional percussion, and a vocal-lead approach to arranging the song’s composition. ‘Synesthesia’ features more unconventional composition and arrangements, with the instrumental being so impregnable that it almost renders the vocals unintelligible, which is a loss as the album’s lyrics are shock full of gorgeous imagery. ‘A Love Song for Catherine’ is a delightful, quirky, and cute take on the traditions of folk love songs. This time energetic and invigorating with rapid, arpeggiating guitars that sound like a bunch of them. The song starts chill before introducing a killer groove that’s almost conventional, but rocking nonetheless. An exciting twist.
‘Good Medicine’ starts warm and curious, as intricate as ever, but relatively minimal, with a cozy acoustic guitar and bass arrangement that feels like a hug. The song comes into its absolute own near the end with a soaring crescendo of haunting strings on an unforgettable, mysterious-sounding progression that makes for one of the album’s most sublime passages. ‘Religion’ might be the album’s most impressive and grandiose song. An affair of multiple phases that remains consistently sweet, easy to follow, and to enjoy, regardless of how many instrumental lines are played at the same time. With rich spiritual imagery, this cut is lush and compelling on many different levels. The closer, titled ‘The Recently Returned’ is based on a fast-paced drum groove, a relatively streamlined arrangement and an absolutely stellar vocal performance that’s masterfully executed. “Ah to catch your light in mine, It’s all I would want to wait so long for” says Gregory on this masterpiece of singing that sits in the tail of what I would probably name as one of the year’s most memorable folk records.
To say that ‘The Dearly Departed and the Recently Returned’ is impressive as a debut would be an insult to Gregory Rhodes. He is an artist so focused and in control of his craft that his tenth album will probably sound just as fresh, original, and as rewarding as his first. But yeah… his debut album is terrific.