The music on American Grandma’s latest recording, Rare Knives of Light is not tense, per se, but its magic springs from a certain tension. “As a person, you’re way more private than you are as an artist,” Caden Marchese says to his longtime collaborator, American Grandma’s songwriter and vocalist Jensen Keller.
Direct and intimate, if not always literal, Keller’s narratives are laid bare. But they are laid bare within a dreamworld of sound. Cyclical, chimelike guitars, airy synths, and tape sound swirl around Keller’s clear and candid voice, recalling Hood and early Dave Fischoff. On the album opener, “All Hands Lost,” Keller sings: “I was three years old when the new millennium came / We will watch our fathers return eternally / Making peace feels like preparation for a long goodbye.”
It’s no wonder American Grandma and Midwife have found a longstanding collaborative friendship. There are certain parallels in the way the poetically confessional situates within contexts of otherworldly sounds. Keller and Marchese in fact recorded a significant portion of Rare Knives of Light with Midwife’s Madeline Johnston at her studio in Las Cruces, New Mexico. American Grandma and Midwife are linked via the Denver DIY scene, a world brimming with adventurous experimentation and deep feeling. Again, productive tension: it is the warmth of fire against the cold black of night or the warm glow of haphazardly strung Christmas lights and blinking guitar pedals at a warehouse show someplace where beyond the walls the ocotillo or aspens and cottonwoods rule vast and vertiginous expanses.
But that feeling isn’t only one of comfort. Profoundly, it is also one of hope; the hope of kinship, the promise of communication.
Hope is central to American Grandma’s project. On “Hope Loop,” which dropped today, Keller briefly details and juxtaposes a few memories, “folding over time” and “debating politics” or riding on the back of a motorcycle, before gently but surefootedly singing the eponymous line: “Rare knives of light found me throughout.” That phrase, Keller says, is an evocation of the sense that while one may find oneself lost in spiritual or emotional darkness, “there will always be that flash of something that will keep you on track or at least remind you that you’re not completely fucked.”
Fans of Bark Psychosis and Flying Saucer Attack will find something comfortably familiar in the textures and pacing that characterize American Grandma’s Rare Knives of Light. And because of these qualities, Low may also come to mind. And it is also Low’s penchant for adventurous studio experimentation that finds a parallel here. But it may be that sense of leaning into the hope that is American Grandma’s most prominent character. “I usually don’t feel hopeless,” Keller says. “And if I do, it’s not for long.”