Nana Grizol, after seven years of silence — in terms of official releases — has returned with its distinctly unrefined brand of lo-fi indie folk rock with an album that combines the best aspects of its first two efforts. The explosive energy of Love It Love It meets the more measured, pared back quality of Ruth on Ursa Minor, delivering a surplus of the both self- and externally-aware commentary that we’ve come to expect from the band. Both smart and casual, a central aspect of Nana Grizol’s identify remains the voice of frontman Theo Hilton, which never seems rushed, even over the frantic horns that punctuate the album.
Upon listening to Nana Grizol, your first thought may be “Wait, is this Neutral Milk Hotel?” You would be forgiven for wondering. Nana Grizol hails from Athens, Georgia, the base of the storied Elephant Six Recording Company (Neutral Milk Hotel, The Olivia Tremor Control, of Montreal). Although they are signed to Orange Twin — a label owned by members of Nana Grizol and Elf Power — the band has taken significant cues from the Elephant Six since their inception, and Neutral Milk Hotel band-members Laura Carter and Robbie Cucchiaro are regular contributors. Nana Grizol heavily echoes NMH in terms of brass, but, while NMH focuses on the otherworldly and immaculately strange, Nana Grizol is rooted in the moment and, more importantly, in reality, actively deconstructing the special meaning that we, as humans, give to the meaningless.
“Today we explored the halls of heroes past / All we found inside were autographs / And so I picked up one or two / But I still can’t tell what they do / I think I will return them in the morning,” closes the opening track of Ursa Minor, “Nightlights I.” It would be easy to write off Nana Grizol’s lyrical content as far too similar to the pseudo-intellectual musings of a John Green character, but Hilton’s intent is pure, not tainted by commercialism; he simply tells it how he sees it, offering his stream-of-consciousness reflections and realizations to anyone who will listen. The result is self-indulgent at times, but ultimately so completely human in nature that it’s hard to blame him.
Regardless, the musical content of the album should be enough to keep any curious listener coming back for more. Like Ruth’s instrumental, “Alice and Gertrude,” Ursa Minor features two short instrumentals — “Ursa Minor I” and “Ursa Minor II” — pleasing-but-hollow-sounding piano ballads overscored by a longing oboe melody. Though only just over two minutes in combined length, these tracks are important in balancing the band’s otherwise word-heavy approach. Rather than rely on choruses to bolster the lengths of their songs, Nana Grizol, more often than not, goes without them. Every song is a densely packed, linear narrative.
Two of the most substantive tracks on the album fall between these instrumental interludes. First, on “Explained Away,” Hilton reflects on an idea akin to the saying that “history is written by the winners,” half-talking, half-singing: “I thought of who it is whose story gets remembered in the end / And through how many careful tellings does one practice their defense / Some nuances the narrator selectively omits / A once collective memory is destined to forget.” On the immediately following “TV Song,” largely about ‘fake news!!’ and highly partisan reporting, he leverages an attack directly at the current administration: “War machines and power dreams and racist, homophobic schemes / can’t orient themselves to give the people what they need.”
Across its 34 minutes, the album oscillates between these sorts of macro issues and personal hardship. Disillusionment with not just government but human society in general characterizes “Mississippi Swells,” which laments the grand disorganization and indistinguishable nature of large cities, while “Bright Cloud” finds our narrator grappling with a recent breakup, “Trying to find thoughts to explain / The significance of the newfound solitude.” Characterized by a general sense of melancholic nostalgia, Ursa Minor is proof that even over time, Nana Grizol remains overwhelmingly consistent in their delivery, the sort of quietly humble underdog that so obviously deserves more attention than it has ever gotten.