Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, Hot Hot Heat, Samantha Crain, Nada Surf and Teenage Fanclub

'Grace Potter & the Nocturnals' might turn out to be the band's defining work, a fact the group recognized by titling the album after themselves. In the era Potter and her Nocturnals pattern their work after, this album would signal the deep maturity and

Jun 30, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Breaking news: I’m still behind but catching up. Really slow film at 11.

In some aspects of my writing life, I’m actually sort of ahead of the curve, which is a specific point on the work arc I haven't experienced for months. And, again, I’m not complaining. When I’m overwhelmed, my scheduling difficulties include finding time to get to the bank to deposit my wheelbarrow full of money. OK, it’s not quite that good, but you get the idea.

With the disparity in my hours-in-the-day/work-to-do ratio, I’m just now getting around to commenting on Mike McConnell’s defection from Cincinnati to Chicago. My first exposure to Mike was when he was your run-of-the-mill Rock jock at 96Rock back in the early ’80s. During my brief but memorable tenure as media coordinator at Bogart’s in 1983, we did several on-air show promotions with 96Rock, a good number of which included Mike’s active participation; I vaguely recall that he even MC’d a couple of concerts (or at least introduced the headliners).

After I left Bogart’s, 96Rock went Country and Mike moved on, eventually landing at WLW, where he started doing his talk gig. Somewhere in the vicinity of 1987 I began doing movie reviews on Jim Scott’s morning show. At the time, I was editor, production artist and writer for the bi-weekly Entertainer Magazine, and in addition to doing album reviews and the occasional music feature I'd also thrown in movie reviews on an irregular basis. Our regular movie reviewer at the time, Andy Blah, had scored a gig on WLW doing weekly on-air reviews as part of Jim Scott’s daily entertainment segment — he’d gotten in because he was a friend of Scott’s producer — and he did the bit for a few months, but Andy had ambitions for a career in stand-up comedy and relocated to California.

Before he left, he recommended me to take his place. After I talked to all necessary parties, I began doing movie reviews every Thursday on Jim’s morning show. Someone from The Cincinnati Post complained that no one had asked their reviewer, Dale Stevens, to do the segment, so for a few weeks Dale and I platooned the show, but he hated it and dropped out after a month or so.

After I finished doing the live segment with Jim every Thursday, my route to leave the station would take me past McConnell’s office, who was typically getting ready for his show by reading several newspapers to find grist for his inflammatory mill. I'd reintroduced myself to Mike when I started my weekly visits to WLW, and I started making a point of sticking my head in his office on my way back to work after my movie reviews to comment on his recent shows.

One particular morning, I confronted him with an absolute vengeance; the talking point of one of his shows earlier in the week had been that there hadn’t been any good music released since 1969 or, in a fit of faux generosity, maybe the early ’70s. Predictably, within his insular audience he found plenty of agreement (“Why doesn’t anyone play…?” and “Whatever happened to…?” seemed to be common themes). I strolled into Mike’s office, leaned on his desk and said, “So there hasn’t been any decent new music in the past 20 years?”

He smiled, tilted back in his chair, locked his fingers behind his head and said, “That’s what I said.” I reeled off a string of names — Blue Oyster Cult, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, U2, Roxy Music, Bruce Springsteen, Joan Armatrading, Be Bop Deluxe, Cheap Trick and as many more as I could think of in a heated moment — that refuted his spurious claim.

He defended his point with the weak argument that no new music was as good as the Classic Rock of the ’60s. I made the counter argument that the Classic Rock of the ’60s, when it was fresh out of the shrinkwrap, was largely looked upon as a vulgar and lurid offshoot of the Blues, which in itself was devalued as a musical artform by most highbrow critics and had only been elevated in status by time and distance from its beginnings. I argued that the music of the past 20 years will likely benefit from the same perspective.

Mike tenaciously maintained that The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Cream, The Doors and CCR were the innovators and all other bands were just weak imitators. I insisted that all great bands are imitated and eventually some of the imitators find their own unique voices and evolve into great bands themselves. Mike insisted that all new music was crap, and I finally dropped all pretense of diplomacy. “Well, Mike, all new music sounds like shit when your head is that far up your ass,” I said.

He burst out laughing and finally admitted that he didn’t necessarily believe that all new music was inherently bad (although it sounded as though he did) and that on any number of subjects where he found himself in a centrist position he'd often take an extreme position just to provoke a response from his listeners.

“See how good it works?” he said with an evil grin.

I get the impression that, in the intervening years, Mike is more personally vested in the views he espouses over the air, but he still has a unique talent for inciting passions in his audience. I’m certain he'll be doing that very thing in Chicago, and I wish him well on this next exciting phase of his life and career. And I hope he‘s over that rectal/cranial inversion concerning new music.

Grace Potter & the Nocturnals have rarely suffered from a lack of superlatives in their press kit. Other than the band’s self-released and largely unheard debut, 2004’s Original Soul, GPN’s subsequent albums for Hollywood Records (2006’s re-released Nothing But the Water and 2007’s This Is Somewhere) have generally been showered with the kind of praise that a lot of bands would pay a flack to write about them.

GPN might have found a ready audience in the Jam community but the band’s grounding was in the Blues-tinged Classic Rock of the ’70s and with that era’s influence, Potter and the Nocturnals crafted a sound that suggested the Blues-laced verve of Bonnie Raitt and Little Feat, the rootsy Americana roar of Lucinda Williams and the gritty Roots Pop lilt of Edie Brickell.

It’s been almost three years since This Is Somewhere amazed most critics, and the subsequent period has been eventful, to say the least. The band’s songs have shown up in a variety of television shows, they’ve toured relentlessly, opening for the Black Crowes and Dave Matthews Band and, most recently, had their live version of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” included on the Almost Alice semi-soundtrack to Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.

But things have been slightly unsettled as well; the band announced last spring that its T Bone Burnett-produced fourth album, provisionally titled Medicine, would be released in the fall. But those sessions were shelved and the date pushed to this year. Longtime bassist Bryan Dondero left the band in the midst of all this. But with his departure came the arrival of Ryan Adams & the Cardinals bassist Catherine Popper and rhythm guitarist Benny Yurco to make GPN a quintet, additions that are all over the band’s eponymous fourth album.

GPN’s rejuvenation (as if they needed one) jumps out of the speakers with the fist pumping “Paris (Ooh La La)” and the slithering, smoldering Blues blast of “Oasis,” while “Medicine” finds Potter grunting with Iggy Pop’s raw sexuality and growling, purring and shrieking with Raitt’s Blues nutkick. The band slows things down to a slow boil on the Reggae-touched “Goodbye Kiss,” the Stevie Nicks-tinged “Tiny Light” and the Rock cathedral hymn of “Colors,” then kicks it back a notch or four with the soulful hipshake of “Only Love” and the shimmery Stax groove of “Money.”

Grace Potter & the Nocturnals might turn out to be the band’s defining work, a fact the group recognized by titling the album after themselves. In the era that Potter and her Nocturnals pattern their work after, this album would signal the deep maturity and understanding of a band with twice as much age and experience. It’s no less than astonishing that these sounds are emanating from a band on their fourth trip to the studio. Grace Potter & the Nocturnals have the guts, passion and power to evolve into a 25-year Hall of Fame band, because emotionally they’ve nearly qualified already.

Hot Hot Heat’s evolution has been an ongoing process since the band formed within the insular Punk community on Vancouver Island in 1999. The quartet started as a darkly toned, keyboard-heavy Punk outfit but quickly shifted to a brand of jittery, synth-fueled New Wave that recalled the danceable lockstep of Gang of Four, the hypercaffeinated blister Pop of XTC and the multicultural thrash of The Clash. HHH’s Sub Pop debut full length, 2002’s Make Up the Breakdown, presaged a whole crop of subsequent New Wave-meets-Indie Rock youngsters and earned a press-kit full of acclaim, quickly winning the band a Warner Brothers contract for the 2003 reissue of Make Up the Breakdown and its sophomore album and major label debut, 2005’s Elevator.

Hot Hot Heat’s sonic direction began to morph with 2007’s Happiness Ltd.; longtime guitarist Dante DeCaro, who frontman Stephen Bays had long credited with providing the band’s skittering New Wave influence, left to join Wolf Parade and was replaced by Luke Paquin. His arrival signaled a shift toward less obvious New Wave nods and a more concentrated dose of contemporary Indie Rock, with the Heat’s frenetic pace thankfully left in place.

Three years on, even more has changed in the HHH camp. The group’s founding bassist Ryan Hawthorne also left the ranks of the band (replaced by Parker Bossley) and the Heat severed ties with Warner and built its own studio.

The complete lack of label restraint might well be the defining quality of Hot Hot Heat’s fifth album, Future Breeds, as the newly refurbished quartet careens through this set with the giddy abandon of its earliest work and its freshly minted brand of inspired Indie Pop. There are moments on Future Breeds, particularly “Zero Results,” “Implosionatic” and “Nobody’s Accusing of You (of Having a Good Time),” where the Heat exhibit the freewheeling Indie carnival spirit of The Killers and Franz Ferdinand and the joyful Pop purpose of Jellyfish, an odd but completely wonderful intersection of sounds. Elsewhere, Bays seems to be channeling his inner Pixie on “21@12,” experimenting with avant Horror Pop on “Times a Thousand” and getting his Strokes on with “Goddess on the Prairie.”

Longtime fans may lament the lessened New Wave influence on Future Breeds, but they shouldn’t. This new Hot Hot Heat might be a little dryer, but it's so much more intense.

With her exaggerated syllables and quirkily beautiful melodicism, Samantha Crain could probably have been a Pop sensation every bit as potent as Feist. But the fact is that Crain has so much more to draw on than the simple elements that comprise a Pop hit that will ultimately double as sonic wallpaper for a product endorsement. Crain, a native Oklahoman and full-blooded Choctaw, translates her Native American predisposition for storytelling into an absolutely mesmerizing songwriting style. The truncated brilliance of her first widely available EP, 2008’s The Confiscation Songs in the Night, were just preludes to her latest work, You (Understood).

For her third release in as many years, Crain and her transcendent band amp up the atmosphere on You (Understood), as on the Lucinda Williams-fronting-Crazy Horse scorch of “Holdin’ That Wheel,” where Crain and Benjamin Wigler trade jaggedly squealing riffage, and the Heartless Bastards-tributes-Wilco Noise Folk of “Up On the Table.” Crain’s blending of texture and rootsy melodicism bears at least a passing resemblance to her labelmates the Avett Brothers and their majestic I and Love and You, but Crain deepens the colors and thickens the air considerably. “Wichitalright” bubbles and boils with the quiet intensity of Tom Waits and Chris Isaak, “Toothpicks” bristles with the Avant Pop invention that Nels Cline has brought back to Wilco and “Religious Wind” lopes along like an Americana hymn with words by Woody Guthrie and music by Lucinda Williams.

Crain says in the press materials that You (Understood) is her attempt to connect with 16 specific people in her life. Hopefully the songs hit the mark she intended, but there’s no question that this album will make a connection with anyone with enough sense to open their ears to it.

Cover albums are curious artifacts in the music industry. In some cases, widely known and commercially successful bands use the concept as a forum to tout their favorite bands or early influences, while some obscure artists cover those aforementioned successful bands with an eye toward fame and payday by association. Nada Surf’s If I Had a Hi Fi doesn’t fall into either camp. The Indie Rock faves have a sizable but still largely cultish following, and the songs that they’ve chosen for their cover project, some solely on outside recommendations, fly so far under radar that, between the relatively unknown set list and the band’s gorgeously melancholy arrangements, the album almost plays like a brand new Nada Surf release.

The highest profile songs on If I Had a Hi Fi would have to be the Depeche Mode mope wave synth Pop classic “Enjoy the Silence,” Spoon’s “The Agony of Lafitte” for the Indie crowd and the Moody Blues’ 1969 hit single “Question” for the Classic Rock demographic. The hook is that, in Nada Surf’s hands, the truly dour “Silence” comes out like a bristling Big Star minor-key epic (a sound matched on the Surf’s take on the super obscure “Electrocution” by Bill Fox) and “Question” motors along with the Pop intensity of an early Gin Blossoms demo. Similar inventive treatments are given to Kate Bush’s “Love and Anger,” which sounds as wonderfully propulsive as a Matthew Caws original, an all-too-brief spin on Arthur Russell’s “Janine,” which lilts like The Shins as produced by Adam Schlesinger, and a triumphant and largely faithful reading of Dwight Twilley’s “You Were So Warm.”

If I Had a Hi Fi is not an album that devotees of the narrowly-appreciated songs will necessarily seek out, but Nada Surf fans will devour it whole.

Teenage Fanclub turns 21 this year, and it almost seems appropriate to begin thinking of the Glasgow jangle Pop outfit in terms of adulthood. The quartet’s early albums were noisy and frenetic evocations of their Scottish street heritage, burnished with a melancholy Pop melodicism and gloriously tilted by their youth. But by the time of 1991’s Bandwagonesque, Teenage Fanclub had settled on a more consciously assembled sound, channeling their hormonal angst through their appreciation of the shambling guitars of The Byrds and Big Star and the exquisite harmonies of The Beach Boys.

The gorgeously hypnotic Bandwagonesque delighted as many critics as fans (the album came out on top of Spin’s end-of-year poll, ahead of Nirvana’s Nevermind and R.E.M.’s Out of Time, and Oasis frontman Liam Gallagher dubbed TF the second best band in the world). And while the band hauled out the occasional stumble along the way, the missteps never seemed like anything more than simple growing pains and merely served to enhance the qualities of the band’s triumphs.

Teenage Fanclub’s work in the new millennium has been the band’s most experimental, working with Jad Fair (2002’s Words of Wisdom and Hope) and John McEntire (2005’s Man-Made) to explore new parameters without going impossibly far from familiar Pop territory. On Shadows, TF’s first album in five years — the longest gap between albums in the group’s history — the band largely returns to the jangly baroque Pop that defined it a decade or more ago with some obvious maturation.

“Sometimes I Don’t Need to Believe in Anything” swells with Northern Soul emotion while “Baby Lee” and “The Fall” lilt with the passionate power of Big Star at their absolute peak. “Dark Clouds” is a lovely piano jaunt in the Left Banke vein, “The Back of My Mind” bobs along like a sophisticated Pop homage to the present-day Meat Puppets and Lemonheads and “Into the City” is the realized fantasy of a Brian Wilson/Alex Chilton summit.

Anyone looking for the adrenalized rush of Teenage Fanclub circa 1991 on Shadows is out of both luck and touch; bands don’t exist for 20 years by working the same corner, and Teenage Fanclub has grown up and on beautifully.