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Michael Yonkers - Grimwood

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Artist: Michael Yonkers

Album: Grimwood

Label: De Stijl

Review date: Nov. 28, 2007

Michael Yonkers recorded Grimwood in 1969, but it didn’t see the light of day until 1974 when Yonkers himself released it, along with three solo records. Coming in the mid-’70s as it did, after the cultural hangover of the ’60s had started to turn into a society-wide psychosis, the album should have been an ideal soundtrack, its dry, claustrophobic and confessional tone matching the gray mood that must have pervaded the states. Grimwood, in some senses, sketches a portrait of psychedelia and bleaches its colors out to reveal something very fragile and almost painful.

The road that led Yonkers to Grimwood winds past all the usual ’60s landmarks: first in a rock’n’roll band, next a surf outfit, then a psych-rock trio and, of course, the psych-folk in question here. (See the informal photo essay here). However, one gets the feeling that Yonkers never had any particular attachment to one or the other, that once he figured a style out, he would tinker with it until it was something new. That might explain why, just a year after he cut the blasted basement-guitar meltdown of Microminature Love, he put down the 12 skeleton-bare songs of Grimwood.

Yonkers’ starting point is certainly what one might expect from this sort of record, thematically and musically. Thematically, there’s a morality tale (“Sandcastle”) and drama in the aftermath (“Damsel Fair and Your Angel”). Musically, Yonkers relies on unaccompanied acoustic guitar almost exclusively.

But Yonkers does push at some psychological limits, and ends up in bleak territory. On “The Day is Through,” he sings ”The day is through / I’ve sung my songs for you / I must be going now” to the accompaniment of a gentle finger-picking pattern, a bleating trumpet and a tape loop of Yonkers’ croons running low in the mix, nearly imperceptible. The effect starts to border on lunacy and breakdown, making one wonder how up close Yonkers witnessed the psychedelia’s dark side. But Yonkers never fell down that hole. His career arc is closer to Robert Horton’s than to Skip Spence’s; Yonkers never went away, he just went his own way.

And Grimwood shows hints of that outsider streak. The title track gives an ironic backhand to the whole utopian business of the 1960s, turning the candyland imagery so in vogue then into something so creepy and dystopian that Philip K. Dick could have written it. Yonkers musical inventiveness comes to the fore on the instrumental “Tripping Through the Rose Gardens,” the icy drone running through “162,” and the bit of field recording that slowly fades in toward the end of “The Big Parade.”

Unfortunately, these tracks are only hints of what Yonkers is capable of. He resorts to some pretty familiar strumming and picking patterns throughout, and his experimentation remains in the background. One can hear how the multi-tracked vocals on “Sunflower” could shatter into something more provocative, but they never do. And at eight minutes, “The Day is Through” soon wears out its cracked atmosphere. Featuring as it does some studio guffawing, it’s clear that Grimwood is a rough collection of ideas, one that could easily do with some more work.

It would be easy to just add “lo-fi folk pioneer” to Yonkers’ resume, right alongside “garage rock progenitor,” and just as easy to exile Grimwood to late-’60s underground culture. Had it been released then, it probably wouldn’t have raised as many eyebrows as Microminature Love would have. The long lens, however, adds a new angle: Yonkers as mad musical inventor, adjusting, adapting, and tinkering with whatever his whim settles on. In an age of prolific home recording and the CD-R, Grimwood’s homespun feel and dark underbelly just might be more welcome in 2007 than it would have been in 1969.

By Matthew Wuethrich

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