A heart of gum is a heart nonetheless, sweeter than most even though it may not be real. In an interview in last month’s Week In Pop Peter Nichols said of his recording process for his new LP as Grape Room, “I lost my patience for anything real.” Anyway, what’s “real” and not isn’t of so much consequence here. There’s a sincere, untethered excitement in Grape Room, instantly present in the opener of Heart of Gum when Nichols voices over a chorus of synthetic bubble pops, “What’s there not to love? / She’s a girl who chews gum / and now I know / I’ll never leave her alone.”
Nichols—who’s also one-third of Happy Jawbone reincarnation The Lentils—has assumed the role of sole producer on the new LP, after having worked with Jo Miller-Gamble and Danny Bissette on projects dating back to the slithering rock album Lizards of Camelot in 2013 when Grape Room was Great Valley. Recorded in his last months in the tiny musical goldmine of Brattleboro, VT before an exodus to LA (see lead single “Yankee on the Run”), Heart of Gum is a conscious turn away from the eight-track cassette production style that characterized everything to this point. Nichols has employed a guitar-to-MIDI interface as the basis for simulated sax, bell, and vocal sounds, which coexist on the new record with 80s Japanese synths and the drum machine from Prince’s “Purple Rain” and “Around the World in a Day”.
Grape Room’s last LP Cartoon Land was a step toward the simulacrum if not straight into it, manically toying with pop tropes and dizzy synth sounds; the cartoonish buoyancy holds in Heart of Gum. On the 11 new tracks, Nichols counters the lightness of these synthetic, realer-than-real sounds with an oft-steely disposition in the lyrics. In his nod to the Nerves classic “Hangin on the Phone”, desperation takes the form of a transmitter’s wail over a booming bassline, and then in the downtrodden ballad “Lesser Broom” we plummet back to bleak earth with the candid question, “I forgot how to sing / but can you really lose what was never yours?” Squashed between flashy videogamey episodes of cheer are unfeigned tearjerkers like “Never Seen Your Face”, where over a huge, soaring synth wash in a watery falsetto Nichols croons, “I’ll never found out why you were so mean / it’s still a mystery today.” It’s a world where poetry is really hard and situations are sticky and unforgiving, but the huge electro-funk sounds of Grape Room furnish the same world with a bizarre, dazzling richness—which is a special power vested in the best pop music.