Magnolia Summer | A Longer View

prof_magnolia_sm.jpgWhile Magnolia Summer has had some success on a national level, playing SXSW, sharing the stage across the country, Chris Grabau is perfectly happy with his St. Louis heritage.

 

 

 

 

 

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Magnolia Summer launches into "Pulling Phase to Ground," an upbeat rocker off their brand-spankin’-new album, Lines From the Frame, and the full house at Off Broadway are nodding their heads in perfect time. I would hesitate to say that Magnolia Summer inspires foot-stomping dancing, but two couples manage to clear enough space to do just that. It’s your run-of-the-mill weekend concert, but there is more of a feeling of an "invitation only" crowd—less of a concert, more of a celebration. Magnolia Summer boasts talented musicians, a sort of Who’s Who of St. Louis roots-rockers spanning more than a decade, who share duties with bands like The Bottle Rockets and Grace Basement. For them and their loyal fans, the show is a culmination of their work, a chance for both the band and fans to say "Thanks for everything." The set is full of their trademark warm, crunchy guitars, Chris Grabau’s shy but earnest vocals, beautiful pedal steel and soulful harmonies. There is a subtle distinction between the three albums covered in the 14-song set. The songs from their first album, Levers and Pulleys, seem to be a little less developed and sweetly timid, while the numbers from their sophomore effort, Driveways’ Lost View, are more aggressive and agitated. The new additions from Lines From the Frame have a higher maturity level in both writing and structure, and seem to say maybe we as a society haven’t quite thrown in the towel.

Grabau says his new mood was unintentional but it came through in the album. "While writing the songs that made it on the new record, I wasn’t really driving toward a particular mood or theme. More than anything, I find myself writing out of reaction. Whether it be a situation that is constant, or a particular moment, writing is more of a catharsis for me. As a result, I think there could be a general theme with the songs on the record which is one of trying to weed through the last few years. Making sense of growing older—of the gifts of perspective age provides—the longer view of things. As a result, I tend to look at the record as having a more positive tone than previous records. To that end, I thought the title, Lines From the Frame, somehow reflects how each of the songs frame a particular feeling, moment or situation." Whether it was intentional or not, Grabau is proud of the results. "I’m really proud of a number of moments within the songs on the record. I love John Horton’s guitar solo on the title track, Greg Lamb’s harmonies throughout the record, Dave Anderson’s pedal steel on "Epitaph" and John Baldus’ drums on "Like Setting Suns." Kevin Buckley’s string arrangements set the tone of the record throughout. Also, I’m also really stunned by Kelly Kneiser’s contribution on ‘Birds Without a Wire.’" Grabau also sees the distinction between albums. "To me, our first record was almost a solo record that Mark Ray and I worked on with a handful of other musicians. The band Magnolia Summer came about when the record was almost complete. From Driveways’ Lost View was our first ‘band’ record that we recorded as a band. The new record feels like the cement is a little more cured around our feet. It feels like a more articulate line in the sand marking an evolution both sonically, and in our ability to articulate where we’re headed musically."

Like any album, this one had its challenges, and the largest obstacle was Grabau himself, he admits. "The band recorded the bulk of the tracks at Sawhorse Studios live as a band. Later, I did vocals and other overdubs at both home and at KSLU’s production studio. Once they were complete, I went back to Sawhorse to mix. While the experience was really rewarding, I found myself at risk of letting the process get lost in the weeds a bit. Sitting alone for nights doing overdubs creates a tendency to overanalyze takes, tones, and syllables. Joe Thebeau was a really great sounding board to keep me from throwing the hard drive into the river or from letting things slide into that ‘good enough’ trap."

Challenging, sure, but Grabau couldn’t say enough about how much easier it was with the caliber of musicians around him. "What seems to be a reoccurring theme with the members of the band is that they’re all a low drama group of people. They’re really talented people and good friends. Each of the members of the band lead or are a part of other projects, which I think helps things a lot. They all know what its like to work through the writing process and have great insights. John Horton and Greg Lamb have been around since the beginning of Magnolia Summer. John Baldus was around during the first record, but joined the band a few years ago. Kevin Buckley and Dave Anderson are fairly new additions, but have been playing live in the band over the last year or so. This is their first recorded contribution for the band. Joe Thebeau started subbing in on guitar when John Horton was busy with The Bottle Rockets. He’s an incredibly talented person all the way around and was an invaluable confidante during the making of the record."

Grabau credits much of the band’s success to their label, Undertow. "I joined Undertow around the time I started working on the first Magnolia Summer record with founder Mark Ray. I spent the better part of the decade helping the former record label aspect of Undertow. Now that the relevance of being on an indie record label has become sort of irrelevant for a lot of bands, I think Undertow is returning to what it was in the beginning, a collection of like-minded musicians who share resources and sensibilities. I think Undertow has returned to what was Mark and Bob Andrew’s vision all along and it’s an exciting time for Undertow and for all of the artists involved. When making the first record in 2003, Mark Ray provided the means necessary for me to be creative and flush the songs out. Simply put, I don’t think I would have Magnolia Summer if it weren’t for Mark Ray’s talent, insight and friendship. I hope that my involvement in Undertow somehow pays it forward for other musicians."

While Magnolia Summer has had some success on a national level, playing SXSW, sharing the stage across the country with bands like Minus Five, The Whigs, The Amazing Pilots, Cracker and Bobby Bare Jr., Grabau is perfectly happy with his St. Louis heritage. "We could’ve gone out of town to record, but why bother when a there are great studios and people in St. Louis? I’d rather support the home team. I heard about Sawhorse through Jimmy Griffin of The Incurables; I loved the sound of his record. I later found out that Jason McEntire was involved with a few other records I loved by Son Volt, Ha Ha Tonka and Ludo. After talking with Jason, I quickly found out that not only does he have a world-class studio but that our personalities clicked. To that end, I also mastered the record with a St. Louis-based engineer Brad Sarno from Blue Jade Mastering. It’s a thrill and a gift to have such talented people in the neighborhood." That being said, he doesn’t necessarily want to be a homebody either. "I’d like to get out of town more in 2009. I know we’re going to Austin for South by Southwest, and I would like to hit other cities like Chicago soon. It’s just a matter of what makes sense and whether it’s economically feasible."

Two songs after "Pulling Phase to Ground," Magnolia Summer wraps up the set with "By Your Side," another track from Lines. It’s a slower number that gains momentum in the end, with a brilliant crescendo of instrumentation from the entire band. The launch party is winding down, and the band gets set to build off its momentum. Grabau humbly thanks the audience before leaving the stage. "I have hope to keep moving everything forward—but to me, that means writing more songs, making more records, and playing more shows. Above all, I would like to look back in ten years and be proud of the music we made. Whatever else happens in the process is a gift." | Kory Kunze

 

Lines From the Frame, Driveways’ Lost View and Levers and Pulleys is available at magnoliasummer.com and other usual music outlets.

In addition to their three albums, Magnolia Summer can be found on the compilations Brown Eyed Handsome Man: St. Louis Salutes the Father of Rock N’ Roll and Of Great and Mortal Men: 43 Songs for 43 U.S. Presidents.

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