Pete Krebs & The Gossamer Wings – I Know it By Heart

In the world of indie rock, there are few artists as well-rounded as Pete Krebs. From his punk-pop roots in bands like Hazel and Thrillhammer to his high-energy bluegrass/stringband excursions in Golden Delicious and his gypsy jazz experiments with the Kung Pao Chickens, it’s easy to forget that his strongest gifts are in the realms of rather standard indie singer-songwriter fare. Despite his glowing vitae, Krebs harbors a talent for tuneful introspection not entirely different from that of his former collaborator Elliott Smith, and I Know it By Heart is a fine example of those gifts given their full range of expression. His first release as a solo artist since 1999’s uniformly excellent Sweet Ona Rose, Krebs has restocked his backup band and reloaded with what is arguably his strongest set of songs since that record.
Ranging from rather straight-laced Americana, with the shuffling rhythms and harmonica of the opening “Sleeping Beauty,” to the soul-ish keyboard hook of “I Get Mixed Up,” Krebs never paints himself into an aesthetic corner, allowing himself to visit as many moods and melodies as are within his reach. For the most part, those melodies fall much nearer to mid-period Lennon/McCartney than the previously surveyed Gram Parsons end of country-rock continuum. Case in point, the clear electric leads and lush backup harmonies of tracks like the blissfully cautionary “Carolina” and the rollicking “Smashed to Splinters” are excellent entries into the Rubber Soul/Revolver canon of Beatles’ homages. The catchy, darkly uneasy piano hook of “Kid Domino,” paired with Krebs slightly unfettered delivery, more clearly recalls the work of his pal Elliott Smith, although Krebs’ musical vision doesn’t tend as strongly toward the depressive.
Throughout, Krebs writes with a simplicity and a sincerity that achieves an emotional directness that runs through both his highly descriptive narratives and his penetratingly reflective autobiographical entries. His band (comprised of two members who also moonlight with indie-god Stephen Malkmus’ in the Jicks), are consummately tight, whether lending Krebs’ music an undeniable jangle-pop pedigree in the gliding “Distant Lights of Home,” an atmospheric lilt in the calming “Her Dress So Green in the Moonlight,” or imbibing it with a smoky old jazz feel in strongly traditional “Lonely Street.” Best of all, no matter where Krebs travels, he never gives the impression that he’s going into territory where he’s not familiar with the landscape, as his record is capable of ranging through wildly different stylistic terrain without ever feeling like he’s simply maneuvering through genre exercises.
Ultimately, if any complaint is to be leveled at Krebs, it could be said that he isn’t exactly a musical or lyrical innovator in any sense and that he seems to largely be walking in the shadows of the many great songwriters he presumably uses as inspiration. Still, such criticism accounts little for Krebs’ profoundly skillful hand in bringing to life his wonderfully realized creations and how wonderfully conversant he is in just about any musical language he chooses to shroud his songwriting. It seems unfair to penalize Krebs for his staunchly gimmick-free approach, even if it means that he doesn’t put across as much unique personality as some of his contemporaries. No doubt, certain of his tracks could appear on Replacements or Steve Earle records, but Krebs’ talents more than stand on their own, even if he doesn’t present himself as an uniquely enigmatic persona. Overall, he might not be standing alone in any of the places he finds his artistic footing, but few artists can be said to be found standing in as many different places, making Pete Krebs a songwriter who ultimately stands in fairly select company.