I was halfway through Grape Room’s new album Heart of Gum (Nicey Music) before deciding to research who this band actually was. What I Discovered Next Was Shocking (sorry, just practicing for my application to Upworthy). Grape Room, it turns out, is none other than the stage name of Peter Nichols– my former high school classmate! Well, shit. Normally, my reviews employ only the most airtight logic, dissecting each note of the music with laser-like precision, but this one will just have to be biased.
My familiarity with Peter’s music dates back to 2004, when I traded him some promotional Lilo & Stitch Play-Doh for his first CD-R (true story). We were never best buds, but we did see The Devil & Daniel Johnston with some of our friends at the Kendall when it came out, and that seems like a good jumping-off point to talk about his music. Peter’s always shared some characteristics with that beloved Austin outsider: phrasing that takes sharp turns in unexpected and delightful directions, an outlook that’s equal parts starry-eyed, sentimental and yearning. And also like Johnston, his early output was uncompromisingly lo-fi, so I was surprised at the sleekness of this album’s production value. That’s not a dig at Peter– far from it– I’m a huge fan of the album’s warm neon glow, its cotton candy synths and psychedelic forays into ’80s smooth-funk. The studio wizardry on display is a perfect complement to Peter’s songcraft, both highlighting and playing off his child-like, off-kilter exuberance.
Peter’s musical view is panoramic, incorporating pained, heartfelt balladry (“Lesser Broom,” “Never Seen Your Face”), bizarro new wave (“Yankee on the Run”) and something like Roxy-Music-Meets-Sgt.-Pepper (“Waiting 4 Banny Grove”). Far from sounding all over the place, he’s able to synthesize these diverse styles into a consistent aesthetic of funky, weirdo pop genius. Ultimately, Heart of Gum succeeds because it dazzles with all sorts of psychedelic sounds and catchy hooks but its idiosyncrasies always keep you slightly uncomfortable, slightly on edge. It doesn’t just give you want: you gotta work for it.
Great stuff, Peter. I promise I’ll pay real money for your album this time instead of just trading you a toy I got in a Happy Meal.