American Grace is the last part of guitarist Eric Hofbauer’s solo trilogy, which began in 2004 with American Vanity and continued in 2010 with American Fear. Like those albums, American Grace mingles original Hofbauer compositions with a selection of covers judicious enough to rival the books of Brad Mehldau and the Bad Plus. And like Vanity and Fear, there’s nothing random about the mix: The trilogy is intended as a running commentary on American society, politics, culture and the like, and while that might not always be as apparent in the listening as Hofbauer wishes it to be, in the long run the jams speak for themselves.
First up is “Kid Justice,” as simple and pure as an early John Fahey meditation, followed by the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence,” introduced via the sound of scratchy vinyl. Hofbauer treats the melody respectfully, but soon enough he’s running rings around it, bringing harmonies to the tune that Lennon likely didn’t know existed. Among the other covers, the Cyndi Lauper-associated “True Colors” is solemn and fragile, “Stella by Starlight” airy and sparkling, Ornette Coleman’s “Peace” exploratory, and “Cheer Up, Charlie” (from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory) teasing and tender. (The guitarist describes that last performance as “a suburban version of Joe Pass with bourbon” in his liner notes.)
Hofbauer (who also works with Boston’s Infrared Band) generally takes more liberties with his own material. “Beat the Drum” is of course percussive, but in a manner that suggests an African balafon more than Western traps. “And So It Goes” skews whimsical; “Mileage” is rhythmically intricate. Neither easy listening nor overly demanding, American Grace is an abundantly expressive and fully affecting guitar recording.