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Grace Potter and the Nocturnals - Grace Potter and the Nocturnals
CD Review by Rick Heisler on 6/14/2010   

A studio album from a band that thrives on live performances can cut both ways.  On the one hand, they’re chock-full of tight, compact songs that benefit (for good or bad) from multi-layered studio production values.  (What would the Grateful Dead’s “Terrapin Station” be without its eerie, multi-track, 1970s New Age-y orchestra and choir?)  On the other hand, studio albums have the potential to lack that certain something: that intangible, down-and-dirty, snap-and-crackle energy of a live performance that only comes from being onstage.  That’s not a knock against studio albums; just sometimes a natural byproduct of their clean, sterile, studio environment. 

Last week marked the release of the new, eponymously named Grace Potter and the Nocturnals (GPN) studio CD.  While it’s the band’s third album for a major label, it’s the first with its current lineup:  original members Grace Potter, the queen of keyboards and vocals,  Scott Tournet on lead guitar, and drummer Matt Barr are joined by “newcomers” Benny Yurco on rhythm guitar and Catherine Popper on bass, although they’ve all been hitting the road together for months now.  While the CD’s thirteen songs are all fronted by Potter’s impressive sassy, bluesy vocals, the whole band believes this particular collection marks their collective artistic coming-out.  After years of evolving and growing, they feel they’ve finally “cracked the code” on developing their signature sound.   The press kit says they’ve found that “dream lineup, the dream sound and the dream producer” (in Mark Batson, who also produced Dr. Dre, Eminem and Dave Matthews Band CDs). 

Yes, it’s true:  this GPN CD offers the same challenges to those  listeners who love a mean, shaggy-dog, live performance.  While I came to GPN only a year ago, I cut my teeth on their live unpolished shows on Internet Archive, originally seduced maybe more by Potter’s effortless ”girl power” sexiness than by the band’s tight musicianship.  Well, I’ve grown past that adolescent crush on Potter and come to appreciate the band in all its finely-honed, remarkable musical glory.  And I sort of see my own growth as a GPN fan as a metaphor for the band --  it’s now all about its fully-evolving membership, sound and energy.  Sure, Grace is still a formidably powerful rock chick in her own right (alternatively compared to Janis Joplin and Bonnie Raitt), but she’s also surrounded by a crackerjack band.  It’s no wonder Rolling Stone (RS) named them “Best New Band of 2010,” but the band’s kick-ass, crackling musicianship makes longtime fans want to yell back to RS, “Where have you been all these years?!”

The CD is a well crafted, polished effort, but perhaps lacks some of the indie grittiness of the  previous two albums.  What is notable is that it sort of has the feel of a live performance, if only for the reason that it rocks without the usual studio production tricks; there are no strings, no horns, no back-up singers, etc.  Nothing’s over-produced.  The band’s striped-down sound is reminiscent of the same lean, mean five piece band they are on stage – and that’s a good thing. 

On a macro level, the CD kicks off with a snarling, cocky bang through the CD’s first third.  From there, it falls back into quieter, more serious ruminations on love and loss – and, surprisingly, some old school studio album clichés in its middle third (What the hell! Song fade outs?  In 2010?) – with a return to its original louder, brassier (finer) form in its final third.  On a micro level the individual songs are a bit uneven.  Sometimes they’re akin to their live counterpart versions, full of Potter’s wailing, octave-skipping vocals; other times they seem more fitting on a CD.  But you never know.  Even a song deemed only CD worthy, like” One Short Night”, has been given heavy rotation (and new touches)  in live concerts. 

The sizzling first third topper, “Paris”, is a whole hell alot of fun in concert (Grace clapping her hands over her head, oozing seduction during the “Ooh La La” chorus), but it’s almost as rough-and-tumble rocking as a studio take too.  “Oasis” possesses a mysterious atmosphere and a lovely, melodic refrain (but that fade out?).  Potter lights into “Medicine” with grunts and growls and really belts its out.  One can almost see her prancing around the stage in her typical spangled dress and Tina Turner high heels.  “Goodbye Kiss” is a playful little Jason Mraz-styled ditty with a catchy melody.  Despite this strong proceeding opening, the CD’s standout isn’t until “Tiny Light,” which is probably the CD’s big radio release (do they still have those?)  Brimming with lyrical optimism, Potter’s strong vocals get a workout and build to a crescendo in which she literally battles it with Tournet’s blazing stadium-rock lead guitar solo in a battle-royale of distinctively different musical instruments.

The album’s middle third comes off like the kinder, gentler GPN;  marked mostly, with an exception or two, by what seems the band’s tender, softer side.  “Colors,” a tune written in the wake of the Obama election, is especially notable, both for Potter’s sincere lyrics (begging that those heady, inclusive feelings of November 2008 stick around a little longer), but also for how ironic this song seems now, when hopeful campaign themes like “hope” and “change” are now little more than empty words on fading bumper stickers.  Lest we succumb to this downer of that realization, thankfully “Only Love” and “Money,” jolt us back to with nicely rocking efforts.   “One Short Night” is pop-friendly, but this section of tunes don’t exactly stack up to the album’s tougher, sexier first third. 

“Low Road” and “That Phone” mark the CD’s return to that GPN Swagger of the first third.  The latter is full of that righteous “woman-done-wrong” determination. And of the final two tunes, The passionate, heated “Hot Summer Nights” comes off like a summer radio-rock anthem, circa the late 1970s maybe, despite the fact it’s set in the cold of winter. The CD’s capper, “13 Things I Never Needed” is a lovely ballad that helps inspire all those Bonnie Raitt comparisons.  It allows listeners to sit back, reflect and enjoy the song’s craftsmanship. 

I may not listen to many studio albums these days, always preferring a live show instead.  But thanks to a restrained production by an obviously skilled producer, a rejuvenated band who feels they’ve got the right chemistry, and some first rate songwriting, this album provides a nice incubator for the potential of these songs, not only as CD cuts, but when they’re inevitably opened-up a bit in live shows.

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