Magnolia Summer: Levers and Pulleys (Undertow)

This type of focus and dedication is often too rare.


Seconds into Magnolia Summer’s debut album, a dejected voice drones, “This is not what I expected.” This first line of the opening track, “Pushing the Needle Too Hard,” may reflect what listeners will think as they wallow in the fluctuating ambiance created by Chris Grabau and company. The Riverfront Times recently nominated the band for “Best St. Louis Americana,” a classification not without merit and inevitable due to the group’s blending of traditional folk/country instrumentation with modern effects and attitude.

Grabau, with varying contributions from one of Undertow’s founding members, Mark Ray, has delicately and delightfully amalgamated the standard guitar/bass/drum sound with a variety of textures. Grabau and Ray, along with seasoned musicians from Nadine, Waterloo, the Rockhouse Ramblers, and Bagheera, lend their well-crafted abilities to rotating positions on a plethora of instruments, including piano, keys, synths, violin, and accordion. Even a drum loop is used to give “Maybesomeday” a modern, vibrant appeal behind Grabau’s whispering vocals. The fresh, earthy production allows each instrument breathing room; the listener can easily distinguish slide guitar from violin as they duel during “Standing Still.” The vocals appear distant at times, but this element lends itself to the album’s spacious quality.

On Levers and Pulleys, every track has a mood of its own, but individuality doesn’t compromise the album’s continuity. The album’s roller coaster–like sequence won’t bore you with monotonous or repetitious melodies, either. Instead, it balances the enlightened reflections found in “Baton Rouge” with the brooding attitude of “Figure Ground.” Track 7, “Canary,” with its answering machine vocal quality and melancholy tone, will continue to haunt the listener well into the harmonious, mid-tempo “Your Brightest Consolation.” While some of the more inspirational moments are created during the mellow tracks, there is no lack of driving drumbeats or tasty guitars (“Wish You Well”).

Evidently, Grabau, a resident of St. Louis, is the primary focus of Magnolia Summer. The liner notes credit him as sole songwriter and co-producer with Ray. According to the Web site (, the end product is the result of two years’ work. This type of focus and dedication is often too rare.

Overall, Grabau and Ray have been able to capture a clear recording without overproducing. Even the artwork—with its transposing pictures of industry and nature—reflects the subtle blends within the album’s content. Magnolia Summer has detected the common ground between modern rock and country. The band’s style can be appreciated equally by someone who isn’t fond of country music’s twang and by the opponents of modern rock’s increasingly generic format.

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