By LEE ZIMMERMAN
Despite its ever-shifting roster, Magnolia Summer has been a staple of the St. Louis Americana scene for the past decade or so, having released four albums and a pair of digital EPs. This latest effort, The Hill or the Climb, comes courtesy of the band’s sole staple, singer/songwriter Chris Grabau, and a pick-up band consisting of Bottle Rockets guitarist John Horton, bassist Greg Lamb and drummer John Baldus, along with others who assist as necessary. Despite Grabau’s insistence that this is the band’s so-called “rock album,” it still holds to the band’s basic MO, one flush with hushed harmonies and an easy country rock sway. “Needles and Pins,” “Slow to a Crawl” and “No One Talks About It Anymore” are ideal examples, further affirming Magnolia Summer’s seductive suggestion. Grabau’s vision of a harder edge is manifest only occasionally – mainly on the upbeat “Yesterday Was a Blur” and in the heavy stomp of “Ulysses Contract” – but it’s all dreamy desire that sandwiches the set – manifest in the songs “The Hill or the Climb” and “Undistinguished Days” –- that provides those paler shades in bolder contrast.
Cave States, an offshoot of the Magnolia Summer enterprise, finds Grabau and former Wagons leader/current Magnolia Summer drummer Danny Kathriner taking the helm and a similar stance, with a proviso that finds the pair opting for sparer settings and more of a mournful gaze. The acoustic strum of “Loose Shoes” sets the pace, but the lovely and longing “Familiar Ways” and the vacant, hollow-eyed perspective of “The Great Divide” provide both the shimmer and the sheen. Any sense that this is simply an ad hoc collaboration quickly dissipates as those sweet songs roll on, all testimony to the innate, intimate beauty inherent in these grooves. Magnolia Summer may be the day job that Grabau depends on, but with a second album already in the works, Cave States is quickly becoming the other band he can look to bank on.
DOWNLOAD: “Needles and Pins,” “The Hill or the Climb” (The Hill or the Climb), “Familiar Ways,” “The Great Divide” (The Great Divide)