Essential New Music: Grassy Sound’s “The Sounds Of Grassy Sound”

“The past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.” When William Faulkner wrote those words in Requiem For A Nun, he didn’t have rock ’n’ roll in mind. While it was on the horizon, it didn’t exist when the book was published in 1951. But Faulkner nonetheless envisioned the current state of rock, in which the sounds and developments of prior decades are ripe to be picked, packed and poured into whatever a contemporary musician might choose to brew up. Grassy Sound, a duo comprising Philadelphia guitarist Nick Millevoi and northeast Pennsylvania keyboardist Ron Stabinsky, gravitates to sounds of the mid-20th century, but stirs them together in decidedly contemporary ways on its debut LP.

Millevoi’s past affiliations include a stint in Chris Forsyth’s Solar Motel Band, bruising electric improv ensemble Many Arms and his muscular jazz-rock group, Desertion Trio. Stabinsky graduated from a youth in polka bands to long-term involvements with seriously funny jazz combo Mostly Other People Do The Killing and the Meat Puppets. A half-decade of ending up in an assortment of projects together culminated in Millevoi inviting Stabinsky to be Desertion Trio’s guest on Twilight Time, a 2019 album of instrumental reexaminations of tunes associated with Les Baxter, the Platters and Santo & Johnny. When Twilight Time was done, they determined to carry on its vibe in a jointly led project, Grassy Sound.

The sounds that Grassy Sound makes are equally dependent upon the right vintage hardware and a rare combination of human software. There’s no shortage of musicians who can put their hands on a Hammond organ, Wurlitzer electric piano or a closet full of Fender products. But how many of them would have the notion to start a tune with some stuttering Dick Dale licks balanced atop an organ groove so greasy that you could fry some eggs on it, then plunge halfway through into a psychedelic maelstrom of flicker and feedback? The duo pulls it off on “Flitzer.” But Millevoi and Stabinsky don’t feel compelled to wax post-modern on every track; with its soulful twang and solemnly churchy keyboard tones, “Another Blue Moon” sounds like it could be walk-on music for a Staple Singers concert.

Nor were they inclined to keep the fun to themselves. After Stabinsky shared some early tracks with the rest of the Meat Puppets, they were only too happy to join in. Derrick Bostrom plays spare, unfussy drums on three tunes, and the Kirkwood brothers add languid, spacey harmonies to the sole vocal number, a cover of Sons Of The Pioneers’ “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” (which the Meat Puppets also tackled on their self-titled debut 4o years ago). The sounds of the past are not past at all; they’re a cultural resource, suitable for remembering and repurposing. Grassy Sound proves equally adept at both.

—Bill Meyer