A tree’s root system stretches out in all directions just below ground, casting a far reaching net that nourishes the surrounding ecosystem while being nourished by it in return, and so goes the storied career of New York native Rob Burger. His talents as an arranger, composer, and keyboardist have been nurtured by more than two decades of contributions to a diverse roster of recognizable names, at the very least including John Zorn, Laurie Anderson, and Iron & Wine with whom Burger presently records and tours. Now based in Portland, Oregon, Rob Burger rightfully brings his stockpiled abilities and influences to the fore on The Grid, an LP that recombines neo-classical soundscapes, ‘70s kosmische, and jaunts of 20th-century exotica into a completely unique genre-quilt that synopsizes his long musical trek through multiple cities, scenes, and sounds.
A lifelong musician, Rob began learning piano at age four and would go on to study under jazz luminaries Max Roach, Archie Shepp, and Yusef Lateef at the University of Massachusetts. As if his formal education weren’t impressive on its own, his informal one consisted of frequent visits to New York City creative hubs The Knitting Factory, and The Kitchen, where Burger became a fly on the wall to the likes of Arthur Russell, David Byrne, and Laurie Anderson (In a cosmic closing of the loop, Burger would go on to contribute to Anderson’s 2010 album Homeland; here she appears on The Grid’s ninth track “Souls of Winter”). With the avant-garde door having long been kicked open, Burger relocated to the Bay and made a lasting impression upon the area’s music scene with his group Tin Hat Trio, while furthering his session and film-score work adjacently. When that group disbanded in the early ‘00s Burger found himself back in NYC where playing a Neil Young tribute show would entwine his path with that of Sam Beam-- aka Iron & Wine. From then on, Burger has been an inextricable component of Beam’s live band and discography spanning from 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog to 2017’s Beast Epic. Somewhere in the interim between those titles, the growth of Burger’s family and his yearning for quieter climes led him to Portland, Oregon, where he built a studio, amassed an enviable collection of vintage keyboards, and began sowing the seeds of The Grid.
When examined purely as a listening experience, the album interweaves the joviality of mid-century exotica with the controlled exploration of krautrock and kosmische, but with a panoramic perspective that stems from Burger’s role as a soundtrack composer. However, as a point on his personal and professional timeline The Grid culminates Burger’s entire career, laying bare his creative voice without compromise thus revealing a unique and wisened musical mind replete with record-collector zeal. Though he has released albums that bear his name, this may be his true solo debut.
Rob Burger’s mysteriously upturning chord-changes express depth and melancholy without ever fully straying from a sense of curiosity and charm making the somber moments believable and palatable, as indicated in the album’s first moments. The Grid rolls in on a cloud bank of old-world sorrow with its piano and accordion prologue “Alternate Star,” but by the initial note of the second-track “Harmonious Gathering” all the sonic elements-- dusty drum machines, choral keyboard patches, and rubberized synth bass-- seem to be smiling in glorious unison. This song, as well as the title track that shortly follows it, hint at what it might sound like if Harmonia had stayed intact and were scoring A24 films. Rather than nodding to his influences with simple pastiche, Burger pairs his well-chosen homages with inventive, modern sound design that implies he has never heard the word “preset” in his life (and if he has, it’s writ large on the studio wall so that he always remembers to avoid it). Case-in-point, “Sleeping Queen” is a shimmering barrage of celeste and reversed dulcimer whose microscopic scrapes and shuffles verify the track’s handcrafted status. Uplifted moods like these are made more impactful by their contrast against dusk-lit pieces such as “Bent Moon,” a piano and mellotron vignette with a slight eastern tinge that conjures some ancient, sand-hued halcyon. Despite a few more peaks along the path, The Grid ends on its darkest note, “Ghost on a Wire”. Though it was originally conceived for a horror film, it is an unexpected yet fitting ending that counterbalances the album’s levity via a goosebump-inducing blend of dampened piano beneath, brassy, detuned drones that are paralyzingly grim.
While The Grid was being constructed many events came to pass in Burger’s life-- including the birth of his children, and the death of both of his parents. What results is a more varied and well-rounded emotional tone that is truer to reality where most self-contained pieces of art tend to curate and stick to a single mood. Burger is able to weave it all into one seamless tapestry, the most prominent thread being its sense of adventure. The Grid captures the undeniably exploratory spirit of a lifelong sound-seeker who can’t help but let his enthusiasm for the process-- and all that leads up to it-- bleed into his work.