Album Review: Ethan Gruska’s 2020 album En Garde

Ethan Gruska is an amazing songwriter who has written a number of songs you’ve heard and loved, but maybe didn’t know it. This song is a folk masterclass, incorporating lyrics that are critical of the music industry and modern society. More than anything, it feels great. There’s room in the world for music that just feels good and this album is the poster child for that fact. Give it a spin, modern folk fans.

Gruska begins his album En Garde with the abstract “Maybe I’ll go nowhere,” a sort of counterlogical criticism of hustle culture. It’s about making your way through life and enjoying connecting with people even if you feel a bit disconnected. The core of the track is an expressive, sometimes understated vocal that expresses deep and introspective lyrics. The production, though, brings in some rather avant garde elements that will have listeners feeling like “I’ve never heard this before” in the best way.

“Enough for now (ft. Phoebe Bridgers)” is one of those songs that takes the best elements of 80s music and fuses them with modern folk stylings. The combination feels pop but also magical, like watching the golden age of Disney animation. You know what you’re hearing is a product of art and magic in potentially equal parts. There’s a beautiful alchemy in the mix of Gruska and Bridgers’ vocals.

“Dialing Drunk” is a song that will make you understand the absolute genius of Gruska’s songwriting. There are elements of modern jazz and classic soul integrated in a sound that feels truly unique. The vocals absolutely soar at points on this one. “Why doesn’t love conquer everything?” is a powerful question at the heart of the song. Sometimes it feels like there are two songs within one here; it’s just the complexity of the melody and countermelody that Gruska layers, more like a classical composer than anything remotely known as “folk” music in the 21st century. To be frank, Gruska is writing at another level.

“En Garde” might be the song that most reminds me of Belle Brigade, Gruska’s other folk project. The sound rattles a bit, with an acoustic guitar at the center. The vocal resonates nicely on this one, but the strings set the depth of the sound from the background. The overall message seems to be about survival, skating through life. It’s hard to say the full meaning behind some of the metaphors here, but it’s a song that feels good either way.

The avant garde “Haiku4U (ft. Lianne La Havas)” track definitely doesn’t feel like any conventional folk music. Borrowing from R&B and experimental jazz, the sound is completely outside of most traditional music boxes. There is a groove and some unconventional melody lines that definitely stand out. The following “Attacker” is a groove. Melodically it comes back to more of a conventional style. The syncopated rhythm is really smooth, allowing the vocal to really pop on top of the understated guitar and percussion. It’s comfortable, like listening to a chilled out old school rapper. It’s maybe my favorite song on the whole album.

“Blood in rain (ft. Moses Sumney)” is like a big, decadent display of soul on a silver platter. By that I don’t mean distinctively soul music, although there are bits of that, but a veritable shmorgasboard of delicious samples of tasty musical morsels. It’s like a jazz-soul-fusion mashup with a thick, syrupy vocal. If I ever get a chance to talk with Ethan Gruska, I would love to know about the production work on this one. It is unlike anything I’ve ever heard… truly a remarkable, genre-mashing song.

The final two tracks “Nervous System” and “Teenage Drug” yet again take the album into experimental territory. “Nervous System” feels like an electronic fever dream, I suspect in mimicking the constant ticking of the human central nervous system keeping tabs on all of the body’s functions. It is a progressive instrumental, perfectly placed on the album. “Teenage Drug” brings back the core Gruska sound, a syncopated folk core with some avant garde production textures around it. The vocal sounds especially Petty-esque on this one. The track provides the perfect personable ending the album. It’s a storytelling song and one of the most accessible to pop audiences on the entire album. It’s a great soothing ending to an adventurous album.

There are probably a million things I could say about this album as an experience. It is throttling. It is surprising. It is at times quite unsettling. More than anything else, though, I find it decadent. I find it richly appetizing as you make your way through each song. I skipped a few in the review for space, but they may be some of your favorites, so make sure to enjoy them all. I’ll admit this much; the review was a way for me to step out of my own proclivities toward the simpler “three chords and the truth” style of folk music. Thank you, Ethan Gruska, for living out loud, an unapologetic artistic visionary sharing creativity and experimentation for the world to enjoy. This is a remarkable album in that regard.

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