Ethan Gruska's En Garde illustrates the truism about the apple not falling far from the tree. With his solo efforts as well as his participation in the Belle Brigade (with sister Barbara), the songwriter/multi-instrumentalist is doing justice to his esteemed lineage: Ethan's father is Emmy-nominated TV/film composer and songwriter Jay Gruska and his grandfather is Oscar-winning composer John Williams.
The younger Gruska further demonstrates his versatile expertise with this second album his own name. Like its predecessor, Slowmotionary (Sire, 2017), this one is at once minimalist and expansive. Ethan Gruska embraces a veritable panoply of sounds and styles from jazz and folk to ambient and alternative, and in co-producing with Tony Berg, enlists the assistance of multiple co-composers and collaborative musicians, such as the very like-minded Blake Mills for "On the Outside." Idiosyncratic as it is, though, Gruska and company integrate what may at first seem overly disparate content into a seamless whole.
For instance, the hushed vocals and subtle arrangements allow the opener, "Maybe I'll Go Nowhere," to resonate with the intimacy of an internal monologue. Judicious but lush production values also render enticing the atmospheric likes of "Event Horizon;" for Ethan Gruska, the studio is but one of his tools, but in fact, a primary means to the end of creating a modern pop that's catchy without surrendering to the pejorative of that adjective.
Lest it seem En Garde is otherwise too contemplative for its own good, the pace of its internal flow picks up markedly with "Enough For Now." Vocalist Phoebe Bridgers sings airily along during a performance that moves in hops, skips and jumps, seeming at first to arrive at an abrupt conclusion only to proceed to its perfectly logical denouement. In an album that thrives on its contrasts, the transition is most vivid between that cut and the piano-dominated rumination of "Dialing Drunk"
It is also one of the most effective such sequences in part because of the length of the cut itself. That deceptively speedy dynamic further sets the stage for some softly luminous electric guitars on a similarly truncated "Crash Cart;" like "Another Animal," one of more than a few cuts running less than three minutes, it is nevertheless complete unto itself. Likewise, "Haiku4U" featuring Lianne La Havas, sounds like an excerpt from a colorful dream, coming and going in a seeming flash.
For all its careful structure(s), En Garde still radiates a palpable air of spontaneity. For instance, "Blood in Rain" manifests a casual air with singing from Moses Sumney (whose own album Gruska is producing). That number is as winning in its own way as the intoxicating instrumental "Nervous System." And the concluding track, "Teenage Drug," punctuates these dozen tracks with an air of finality, completing a striking portrait of the artist that is Ethan Gruska, circa 2020.
Maybe I'll Go Nowhere: Event Horizon; On The Outside; Enough For Now; Dialing Drunk; Crash Cart; Another Animal; Haiku4U; Attacker; Blood in Rain; Nervous System; Teenage Drug.
Ethan Gruska: vocals, acoustic and electric guitars; keyboards, synthesizers, Mellotron, Marxophone, zither, drum programming, drums; Phoebe Bridgers: vocals; Lianne La Havas: vocals; Moses Sumney: vocals.