Kris Gruen | Lullaby School (Mother West)

The majority of Lullaby School, as its title would suggest, skews toward the gentle and the contemplative. A soft and hazy glow permeates the record, lending a comfortable, domestic feel to the proceedings.

At one point in the 1990s version of the movie Bedazzled (don’t worry, this is going somewhere), Brendan Fraser wishes that he could be the most sensitive man in the world, so as to impress his fickle love interest. Of course, he’s making this wish to the Devil, and in so honoring his request she reduces him to a cloying, sweater-clad puppy dog, who can’t help but burst into tears upon the mere sight of a picturesque sunset. Now I’m not saying that singer-songwriter Kris Gruen or his material neatly resembles this caricature of a man in touch with his feminine side, but certain sections of the guy’s lyrics sheet couldn’t help but remind me of this particular movie moment. From the lifetime-in-a-snapshot approach of “Daughter of Bordeaux” to the musings on fatherhood contained within “Pantoum for Baby,” Gruen’s debut album Lullaby School often threatens to overflow with homespun sentiment. However, Gruen’s knack for exotic arrangements and, yes, compelling poetic phrases keeps this record from devolving into the schmaltz-fest that it could have become in less able hands.

“Tender Theory,” a sunny, banjo-driven serving of pop-folk cobbler, leads off the album, but proves to be a bit of a red herring for what’s to come. The majority of Lullaby School, as its title would suggest, skews toward the gentle and the contemplative. A soft and hazy glow permeates the record, lending a comfortable, domestic feel to the proceedings. Surprisingly enough, Gruen recorded these tunes in the steely urban deathtrap of his native New York City, and not his current residence of rural Vermont. Somehow, Gruen managed to import the quietude of his newfound home into the ceaseless cacophony of the Big Apple, resulting in disarming songs like “For the Finding,” a first-class bedtime story for the city that never sleeps.

Throughout the album, Gruen utilizes a small assortment of novel supporting instruments to compliment his acoustic plucking. Sure, the twee mainstay glockenspiel is a no-brainer for a sunset meditation like “In the Clearing.” Elsewhere, however, a Jew’s harp and a New York City rainstorm give “Truffles,” otherwise a mere interlude, an otherworldly sense of atmosphere. “Robes of Li Ling” sets its sights on the Far East with a sitar and tabla combo. Combined with images of “broken snow” and “apple blossoms in the wind,” Gruen successfully transports his listeners to where he wants them to travel. Though he’s still just another Caucasian songwriter trying to evoke the sounds of the Orient, Gruen finishes well ahead of the pack in this department.

As for the lyrics, sentimentality, nostalgia, and wonderment remain Gruen’s moods of choice. Hardened cynics should avoid this record as they would a Touched by an Angel TV marathon. Lullaby School also feels like an album that’s coming out before it’s in season. These songs sound better suited as a soundtrack to autumn’s reminders of mortality than the hot and sticky thrills of summer. Still, for those willing to slow down and perhaps get a little touchy-feely, there’s a charming song cycle to be heard here. | Jeremy Goldmeier
 


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