As part of the indie chamber ensemble Rachel’s, pianist-composer Rachel Grimes helped popularize orchestral instruments in the world of rock. Her band paved the way for such groups as Godspeed You! Black Emperor, who brought thundering compositions to kids raised thinking that orchestral music belonged in symphony halls, attended by their parents. But whereas later groups tended to incorporate classical instruments into the noise, Rachel’s always kept the arrangements of a more traditional ensemble, even as later albums broadened the band’s scope far beyond the neo-modernist compositions of the early albums.
The Clearing expands on Grimes’ previous solo work, adding artists and instruments that push her austere compositions in bold new directions. Far more meandering and experimental than previous work, the album feels like a talented neo-classical composer setting out for new vistas, only to find a similarly melancholic and elegiac tone in most of the places she winds up. Clearly a concept record of sorts, Grimes’ piano is still at the heart of nearly every piece—even in those cases where the strings lead the way.
To chop up the album would do her a disservice, because careful thought has been put into the arrangement of these tracks. Punctuated by lilting, often ambient interludes (“The Air,” “The Air Of Place,” “The Air In Time,”), the album calls to mind a sense of wandering, of strings, woodwinds, and other instruments in service of Grimes’ searching muse. Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition is a point of comparison, in that this album similarly takes the listener on a sojourn through a variety of aural interpretations of places and time, though of a much more introspective sort for the artist. It’s difficult to establish metaphors, because the record feels so airy and untethered to the ground. It’s a journey that’s not aimless, but destination-less.
The title track, the longest and most beautiful composition on The Clearing, is a masterful arrangement, a combination of minimalism and modernist flares that mesh touchingly. It’s Philip Glass meets Stravinsky: a single piano note repeating against the intrusions of a string trio slowly harnessing itself to the insistent tapping of Grimes’ beat, only to release the tension into a gentle, lilting processional. “The Herald,” by contrast, is a slowly rolling 3/4 tempo, a live and loping meander anchored by a magnificent sax solo. “Transverse Plane Vertical” is perhaps the most Rachel’s-like song here, the only one to incorporate percussion with a pulsing beat, while a larger ensemble builds a landscape. Grimes composed it for a dance group, and it shows.
Other tracks ebb and flow with the progression of the pianist’s careful arrangements. Most are delicate, with plucked or gentle strings eking out melodies that seem afraid to wake someone in the next room. These pieces are littered with space: Grimes uses pauses and silence almost as another instrument, inserting teasing rhythms and slowdowns like the fluctuations of a warm fall breeze. The whole record conjures images of naturalism and space, evoking wings, flight, and distance. There’s a melancholy beauty carrying along these delicate compositions. Call it Pictures Of An Outdoor Life.