There was the contemplative indie-folk opener, “Philsophia,” the pop love song single, “Told You So,” the R&B tune, “Vertigo,” and even a country composition, “I Think I Love You.” Critics would call them scattered. Fans, like KCRW music guru Nic Harcourt, would call them multi-talented. The band itself, well they just call it “fun.”
On an orange couch near the bar entrance to New York’s East Village venue The Living Room, Kevin May, who, along with Mick Lynch, forms the two-man group, explains.
“We’re just finding our voice and having fun along the way,” says May. “I don’t just want to be a blues man. I don’t just want to be a Leonard Cohen, stripped-down, nylon-guitar guy. It’s fun when you don’t pin yourself down, but it’s bad for the media types trying to describe your sound.”
May is on the money with that one. A writer could throw out a collection of antonyms — simple, complex; harmonious, dissonant; groundbreaking, tried-and-true — and be accurate with all of them. So let’s just settle on “adventurous.” After all, such a label fits not only the music but the musicians as well.
Since Jan. 1, the Dublin-based duo has been performing stateside after landing a residency at The Living Room in New York … and another at The Lizard Lounge in Cambridge, Mass. … and another at The World Cafe in Philadelphia … all at the same time. The simultaneous residencies keep them on the road much of the week without any real home base. The constant traveling should be good practice for their extended cross-country tour that kicks off in Burlington, Vt. and culminates in California at the end of February. Locally, it passes through Jammin’ Java in Vienna on Feb. 3.
The busy schedule has given the guys ample opportunities to show off material from their new album, Happy the Man, a slightly more focused album than the far-ranging … Waltzing Alone.
“It was a conscious decision, a choice we made at the start,” May says regarding the call to rein in their sound. “On the last album, we were very much living in the moment on each song. For this one, we wanted to draw together some of the ideas.”
So the duo took a core group of songs — “Everyman,” “Lost Forever And,” “Her Beautiful Ideas,” “The Girl With The Cards” and “Just Not Just” — and built around those.
Acoustic tunes bent around themes of overreaching love, inflected with a collar-up-against the wind contrast between vulnerability and ambition. But while the album as a whole is more consistent throughout, that’s a very different thing from monotonous. Operating within a more solid framework, The Guggenheim Grotto has still constructed a dynamic work. Even within those five baseline tracks their sound ranges from the shadow-dancer mystique of smoldering vocals and jangling gypsy strings on “The Girl With The Cards” to the cigarettes-and-whiskey piano-bar ballad of “Lost Forever And.”
But even while working within that predefined framework, May and Lynch still incorporate their adventurous side into the mix. In fact, it’s readily apparent from track one, a spacey, choir-backed, spoken-word intro that segues into early 80s-ish opening tune “Fee Da Da Dee.” On that song, Lynch and May again incorporate the same a cappella rhythms that dotted … Waltzing Alone.
From there the album advances to “Her Beautiful Ideas,” a frivolous love song that features a Peter Gabriel feel. But according to May, the sound similarities vary wildly for each listener. Some hear Gabriel, others say some tunes sound like Paul Simon’s solo work, still others remind of Rufus Wainwright.
“I love learning what other people hear in our songs,” May says. “It’s like hearing them describe a glass of wine. One of our friends told us they heard some Prince on ‘Fee Da Da Dee.’ And I love Prince, so I loved that comparison.”
On second thought, even given the album’s more unified feeling, with all of the variations within the tracks, and all of the differing listener interpretations, maybe things aren’t all that similar after all.
• For more on The Guggenheim Grotto, visit www.guggenheimgrotto.com. The band plays Jammin’ Java Feb. 3 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $12.