December 7, 2012

The Guggenheim Grotto

Jenee Halstead opens

The Guggenheim GrottoThe Guggenheim Grotto is a duo that has been described as what Crosby Stills and Nash would have sounded like if they were all from Dublin. ¶ Jenee Halstead, who opens, is the voice of Spokane, Wash­ington, devilish in a different way, free spirited and animalistic in exactly the way suggested by the title of her second album, Raised By Wolves.

When Dublin alt-folk songwriters Kevin May and Mick Lynch of The Guggenheim Grotto first appeared on the U.S. scene in 2006, comparisons to Simon and Garfunkel dominated the critical landscape. With their two-part harmonies, folk-acoustic stylings and earnest pop songwriting, it seemed no one could resist. Over the past six years, however, the duo has transcended the comparison — creating rich, multi-instrumental soundscapes. They dabble in synths and effects and radiate melancholic beauty. And sometimes they silence a room by simply harmonizing over a lone ukulele. Always though, their songwriting is marked with a belief in the promises of the universe, a curiosity about humanity and a hopeless romanticism embodied by only the most passionate of artists and dreamers.

This romanticism shines on the band’s latest album, The Universe Is Laughing. A lyrical journey through life’s beautiful mysteries, the record sees Kevin and Mick further develop themes of self-discovery and enlightenment they first visited on 2009’s Happy The Man. The Guggenheim Grotto emerged in 2005 to critical acclaim in Ireland with its debut album, Waltzing Alone, when the first single “Told You So” reached No. 12 on the Irish National Airplay Charts. Two years later The Guggenheim Grotto released Happy The Man as an iTunes exclusive in October 2008, and the album quickly rose again to No. 1 on the iTunes Folk Chart. January 2009 saw the physical release, and the band spent much of the year traversing these United States to promote it — from playing listening rooms across the country to large festivals, performing on nationally syndicated programs like E-Town in Boulder, CO and Charleston, WV’s Mountain Stage and opening dates with Ani DiFranco and They Might Be Giants.

In June 2010 The Guggenheim Grotto released its third album, The Universe Is Laughing, on United For Opportunity. The band moved to the U.S. and began a series of weekly residencies in New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Ventura and San Diego that grew wildly, ending in some truly special nights with rooms packed with newly charmed fans. TGG then closed out the year performing as special guests on a 20-date national tour with Ingrid Michaelson.

. . .

Jenee Halstead

Jenee Halstead grew up in the high desert of Spokane, Washington, the daughter of hippie parents who let her find her own direction. She spent her childhood exploring her mother’s garden and singing along to records with her dad. In middle school, she transformed into the rarest of birds; an athletic choir geek who sang medieval choral works, but loved Led Zeppelin and Dolly Parton. She wrote quietly on her own for years, moving from place to place — Spokane to Seattle to nowhere Alaska, before moving to Boston in 2007.

Jenee collected all of her songs into what would become The River Grace. Her latest album, Raised By Wolves, reclaims the careless freedom of her childhood with a sense of wonder that is unique and fiercely engaging. “I had been thinking a lot about the wild — about instinct and intuition,” Halstead says. “I knew that I wanted to capture these ideas on this album but I just wasn’t sure how it would happen. Once I got to the studio and played through the songs, the answer seemed obvious.”

Ditching her trademark character sketches she started over, writing in first person and swapping her guitar for piano and ukulele. The result is Raised By Wolves — Halstead’s most personal and ambitious recording thus far. “I am still surprised by it,” Halstead says. “We just followed our instincts, just like I had hoped to. Even the songs like “River of Doubt,” that I would’ve normally considered “dark” don’t seem to feel that way because there is so much energy behind them.”

  • The music [The Guggenheim Grotto] puts out is beyond roots and distinctly their own. Their rhythm and melodies are silky and the lyrics have incredible depth and meaning, so that you become more engrossed in the CD seeking to hear that hook, harmony, piano, or a certain phrasing that resonates with some emotional spot within you. The layers initially seem simple, yet are quite complex. The harmonies reflect the “folk” aspect of the music, but this is beyond folk music into something quite different — hence the “alt-folk”. STEVIE WILSON, BLOGCRITICS.ORG
  • Happy the Man . . . is a first rate collection of intelligent, literate, melodic pop with influences running from the Beatles to contemporary sounds. Mick Lynch, Kevin May and Shane Power sounded as if they worked intensively in the studio, layering their parts in the finest obsessive popster tradition, going back to Brian Wilson or the Beatles. Their work paid off handsomely in a CD on which practically every track has something interesting and worthwhile to offer. George Graham, georgegraham.com
  • . . .
  • Jenee Halstead’s sweet and seductive sway takes full flight on this, the third effort of a still burgeoning career. “So Far So East” takes on a rock ‘n’ roll twang, but it’s the exception in this set; most of the songs are cloaked in a dark atmospheric veil that renders them with gothic-like designs. The effect often sounds like Appalachian mountain music propelled with a techno pulse, but Halstead pulls it off superbly, given the saunter and sway of “Building You An Altar,” the sprawling strum of “Rodeo of Sadness” and the gentle cushioning embrace of the mysterious “Bitten By the Night.” Through it all, Halstead’s vocal is a wonder to behold, alternately enticing and alluring, or sinewy and seductive. This is an album that’s mesmerizing throughout, and whether her voice is heard soaring over the clip-clop pulse of the title track or simply in a sensual croon on the pleading “Never Another,” Halstead’s presence is nothing less than hypnotic. Consequently Raised By Wolves shows she’s been brought up right. Lee Zimmerman, No Depression
  • The River Grace focuses on uncertainty and despair, murder and suicide. Yet, while the Boston-based Halstead is a songwriter unafraid to deal with life’s great tragedies and awkward compromises, her real strength, on this debut album, lies in her voice. Halstead’s singing packs the emotional punch of Emmylou Harris and will keep you hooked: even in those stretches where you’re not sure what she’s singing about, it’s clear that it matters. Mark Edwards, UK Sunday Times