Review: Ethan Gruska shines brightest when melody prevails
Ethan Gruska, “En Garde" (Warner Records)
Ethan Gruska has a well-deserved reputation for dreamy experimentation. From his work with the Fleetwood Mac-adjacent Belle Brigade to his 2017 solo debut, “Slowmotionary," the songwriter and multi-instrumentalist has long demonstrated an adventurous musical spirit. Sometimes the experiments succeed, sometimes they don't.
That pattern continues on Gruska's latest solo offering, “En Garde," but the wins are more frequent this time. The Los Angeles-based producer of artists like Phoebe Bridgers and The National's Matt Berninger shows a polish and maturity that suggest he could be turning a corner as a solo artist.
The release is at its best when Gruska anchors the dreamy atmospherics he's known for in a sturdy foundation of melody. That's a big step forward from “Slowmotionary,” his occasionally ponderous first album. More direction, focus and structure have helped to elevate the soundscapes.
That pays off nicely on the album's better cuts, delivering tunes that will find their way onto many a mellow playlist. The best of these, “On the Outside," allows a gentle but slightly serrated electric guitar to lead the way through a soulful bop. “Maybe I'll Go Nowhere” and “Enough for Now," with Bridgers contributing background vocals, are both well-served by melody.
When Gruska veers too far from structure, his songs come across as ungrounded. The experimentation is laudable and the playing impeccable, but sometimes there's a lack direction and the lyrics don't have much heft. It's like a fine-looking car with no engine under the hood, much less a discernible place to go.
Still, there's enough to like in the album's best songs to make Gruska an artist to keep watching with enough promise to hint that better things lie ahead.