Grace Potter and the Nocturnals: “Grace Potter and the Nocturnals”
You gotta have respect for Grace Potter and the Nocturnals: In a move that has already become the stuff of lore, they recorded tracks for what they hoped to be their breakout album with legendary producer T-Bone Burnett— and then scrapped ’em. Maybe Burnett’s analog-fetishizing, old-timey sound just didn’t square with the band’s muscular rock and roll vigor. Or maybe, as they’ve hinted at in interviews, the T-Bone sessions were a little too heavy on Grace, a little too light on the Nocturnals, resulting in songs that were shaping up to be, for all intents and purposes, a solo album. Whatever the reason, they did what most bands in their position– and young bands in particular– would have never had the stones to do, and they showed Burnett the back door.
The thought of a Grace Potter solo album– perhaps produced by Burnett, or, even better, Joe Henry— isn’t a repulsive suggestion– she’s got the voice and more than enough charisma to pull off an entire album in the spotlight– but it just isn’t where she and her unit want to go right now. So they teamed up with Mark Batson, a guy who’s worked with folks like Jay-Z and Beyonce, Dave Matthews and Maroon 5, and made an album that’s perfectly suited to where they are right now– an album that sounds like the bid of a band that’s ready to break into the mainstream. It isn’t their first album, but it may as well be; it’s self-titled for a reason, because it feels for all the world like a proper introduction, the opening salvo of a band that makes no attempt to hide their desire to be the next big thing in rock and roll.
Lusting after fame isn’t always a pretty thing for a rock band, but you have to hand it to them: On Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, they sound like they’s got both the confidence and the chops to pull it off. Batson’s work here is stellar: The album is sleek and polished, propulsive and hook-laden, streamlined enough to sound like the work of a band moving toward the mainstream but with the Nocturnal’s own personality and individual quirks very much in tact. It’s sterling in its professionalism but still vibrant, feeling like the work of a rock and roll band that’s coming into its own; the sound is modern, but rooted in flavors of classic rock that make it feel contemporary but timeless at the same time.
In keeping with breakout modern rock records like this, the album is front-loaded with singles-in-the-making. Longtime fans may find the album’s first half to be a bit too poppy, but really, it’s a bravura showcase of Potter’s songwriting and the band’s muscle and flexibility. The hit parade making up the record’s first five tracks is nearly flawless: Opener “Paris (Oh La La)” is a funny, sexy strut in the vein of the Pretenders; “Oasis” is a shimmering, spiritual rock number with shades of U2; “Medicine” is a seductive blues-rock number coated in B-3 and flecked with dirty guitar licks; “Goodbye Kiss” is a reggae groove that works far better than it has any right to, the band carrying it on the back of their conviction and their resourcefulness; and “Tiny Light” is an outright anthem that crescendos in a distortion-drenched guitar freak-out that would come across as indulgent if it didn’t rock with such white-hot fury.
On these songs, the band lays down the gauntlet; they can write hooky rock and roll with its footing in pop, and they can ape from a wide array of influences without sounding like anyone but themselves. After that, the thing stretches out: The back half of the album loses some steam as it finds the band losing stretching out for some more jam-oriented material– which will likely play well at the summer festivals, but grows tedious on record, especially on the heels of the tight songcraft of the opening section– intermingled with some soul-drenched mid-tempo numbers that are winsome for Potter’s sultry vocals and playfully randy lyrics; “That Phone” is the high point of the album’s second act, a dirty rocker with more than a whisper of Memphis R&B. The ballads work less well, particularly the slow and overlong “Colors” and the drawn-out closing number, “Things I Never Needed.”
But in a way, it’s comforting to have those songs present: They show that the Nocturnals aren’t trading their jam-band cred or their integrity as a rock band in favor of making pure product, instead balancing their rootsy chops with their newly-found and already finely-honed pop instincts; the result is a modern rock record that’s mostly stirring, a bit tedious from time to time, but thoroughly the work of a band that’s finding itself and staking their territory– and enjoying every minute of it.