Review: Grover Anderson – The Optimist

Americana dressed up in a folk-rock suit, Grover Anderson’s music is a joy to discover. Self described as following in the footsteps of Garth Brooks, John Fogerty, and Josh Ritter, Grover’s music has a classic sheen to it that inspires déjà vu. More than once while listening to The Optimist, his third album, I squinted my eyes and pursed my brow as I tried to find out where I’d heard that song before.  But these are all his own songs (although “Pick Up Your Horn” was co-written with Jimbo Scott).  Not all of these songs are explosively good – Grover’s subtler than that, giving time to breath and allowing them to come to life without drawing too much attention to themselves.

Of course, it’s not a perfect album. Some of the songs don’t have enough of a hook to keep me interested; they can be a little bit too slow and subtle. Even so, I enjoyed every song here, but there’re four songs that I can see myself pressing play again and again for years to come: “The Lampolier,” “Pick Up Your Horn,” “Handle The Lonely,” and “Grindstone.”

“The Lampolier” is the highlight of the record– a gripping story of murder and deception that gives an Americana twist to the ancient European folklore of the Will o’ the Wisp. They’re ghostly lights seen in swamps and marshes, luring wandering travellers to their deaths.  In this story, a grizzled old Lampolier is the one doing the luring. Grover himself might be considered one of those lights, taking you off the beaten path and further into the music of the past.  It’s the type of song that makes me love the genre.

Speaking of songs I loved, “When You Come Near” is superb. It has that smooth guitar hook, which caught my ears and reeled them in slowly. Not to mention the near heavenly saxophone that sneaks into the song and never leaves. “Handle The Lonely” puts Grover at his best, where his voice runs ragged with emotion. He’s not wearing his heart on his sleeve; he’s ripping open his chest, not caring who sees.

But once I’ve listened through to all these songs, the title struck me: The Optimist. There’s not very much cheer to be found. “The Lampolier” follows a man to his gruesome demise, “Philip Marshall Cates” unravels a story where the husband and son of Samantha Cates abandon her to work a farm by herself, until the father dies, and the son comes home to buy his mother. There’re songs that speak of love without heartbreak, to be sure, such as “Sick of You,” “Enough,” and “Little Spoon,” but then comes along another, like “Grindstone:

“Love’s down to powder and sawdust and grit / I’d like to call but there’s nothing left to say / And I never meant to take advantage of you like I did / The wind picked up and carried all away / Grindstone / (Love falls out every day) / (I just missed it).”

The more I listened though, the more I could see the sense of it. After all, the album’s called The Optimist, it doesn’t make any claims that the world is anything more an endless ocean, and nothing more than humanity unmoored islands floating away from each other. All he’s doing is calling out that there’s hope, hope that on occasion, these floating selves collide and give each other more to live for than before. That’s what I see the album as doing: in spite of all the pain, death and shortcoming of life seen on the album. Grover Anderson is looking for the moments in life, the moments with the people you love, however brief they may be, that make living worth all the rest of it. After all, just like he says in the undeniably happy “Save the World:” a singalong is gonna save the world.” Whether or not a singalong will indeed save the world is moot. The point is the hope.

The Optimist wraps itself around you like a blanket on a cold winter’s day; a moment of warmth and comfort amidst a bleak soundscape. Then it pulls you even closer and begins to whisper out stories in the night. You lean in closer to grasp the words, not wanting to let a single one get away. And if you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself bleary eyed by dawn, having stayed up all night at the fireside of a masterful storyteller.

You can buy it on iTunes and listen to it on Soundcloud.

*Oh, and by the way, I’ve been giving most of the credit for the album here to Grover Anderson, and while he is the most responsible for it all, these good musicians do an impeccable job making it sound the way it does:

Aaron Bishop (Bass)

Bob Matthews (Drums

Rick Moore (Keyboards/Sax)

Kiel Williems (Guitar)

Michael Clebanoff (Mix)

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