The essential elements to Matt Dorrien's rollicking, Tin Pan Alley-inspired new record are as follows: piano, Nilsson, whiskey, heartbreak, Randy Newman, old phonographs, and New Orleans brass bands. A big, swinging pean to loneliness and the golden age of pop songwriting, In the Key of Grey is the sound of East Village piano bars long past closing. "I guess I would say this album is a homage to a bygone era of songwriting," Dorrien says. "A lot of the songs are about a certain period in my life, with themes of love and loss abounding. But at its core, I believe I wrote this record as a tribute to my favorite songwriters."
Loneliness is hardly a new topic for Dorrien; it's been present in his songwriting since his first record. But rather than take the predictable route and filter it into a stack of slow-moving ballads, Dorrien instead drew inspiration from songwriters like Carole King, John Lennon during his New York era, and Harry Nilsson's acclaimed 1970 album Nilsson Sings Newman. The result is a record that swings and sways, even while its heart is breaking. "Underwear Blues" is a loping, piano-driven salute to a one-night stand, Dorrien's limber voice somersaulting over two-stepping piano and woozy clarinet. "I Can't Remember," the first song Dorrien wrote for the record, feels like a subtle melodic nod to "Without You."
If those two songs are documents of both the pain that accompanies a breakup and the fumbling, semi-comic attempts to move on, "All I Wanted to Say" goes for something more difficult: the desire to remain friends. Gently-drifting ‘70s FM rock balladry at its finest, the song is essentially a transcript of a phone conversation Dorrien had with his ex-girlfriend after they split. "Pretty Little Thing" tips its hat toward country music, with its tale of barroom misfortune and its swinging, player-piano-style keyboard line, and "Maybe This Time" is a sauntering jazz number with a vocal line that swoops and dips. Each song is shot through with an easy, sure-handed melodic sensibility, driven by Dorrien's graceful voice and his knack for artfully-constructed harmonies that never feel precious or overworked.
Dorrien is joined on the record by bassist and lap steel player Matt Dawson (of Montreal), multi-instrumentalist Mitchell Gonzales, drummer Graeme Gibson (Fruit Bats; Michael Nau) who also recorded and engineered the record, and Ben Nugent (Delorean), who mixed it. Together, they tell the story of a man working to put his heart back together, one blue note at a time.