Philadelphia’s Grubby Little Hands began as the duo of singer-songwriters and multi-instrumentalists Donnie Felton and Brian Hall. Then they turned into a sextet for their third album, Garden Party, adding guitarist Joseph Primavera, drummer Chad Brown, keyboardist Mark Saddlemire, and circuit bender Michael Rothstein. So they have one hell of an arsenal at their disposal, and though their latest effort comes in at only eight tracks, it’s deftly dense, switching aesthetics seamlessly and engagingly.
The opener, “Dial Tone,” is a straight up hip-hop beat for the first half with hard-hitting, rolling, drums and shimmering ethereal synths. “Dial Tone” melts into the surfy psychedelia of “No Such Thing,” which diffuses into groovy, rhythm-heavy guitar and percussion for the mid-tempo ballad “Erase Memory.” Things get even more far-flung toward the end of the collection with the folk tendencies and wonderfully warped guitars on “Don’t Shoot Straight” and the slow ’70s singer-songwriter, piano-driven closer “We Don’t Exist.”
The presence of all these different elements and sensibilities could make for a discordant mess were it not for the band’s adept timing and command of temperament. But an equal contributing factor to the album’s cohesiveness is the contemplative, challenging lyrics. At no point on Garden Party should the lyrics be glossed over despite the wonderfully variant soundscapes. On paper, the macro and micro reflections of humanity and individuality would read as bleak and devastating, but surrounded by continually engaging sounds they become cathartic and touching. On “Michael,” Felton harnesses the helplessness he felt when he was viciously beaten unconscious by a group of young men in a case of mistaken identity, but he comes out “none the worse for wear” on the song’s purgative crescendo. Hall recalls a near-death experience when he was stabbed in the abdomen in center city Philadelphia on “We Don’t Exist,” but the beautiful piano and his breathy intonation elicits beauty from tragedy.
Stream the whole stirring, sundry 36 minutes below.
Garden Party is out 4/29 on Lefse. Pre-order it here.