This time, the hype is justified.
Ever since Grace Potter & the Nocturnals went from being an unassuming indie jam band to signing with high-profile Hollywood Records, the Vermont-based group has been getting a major marketing push. Unfortunately, the band’s last studio effort, “This Is Somewhere,” didn’t live up to its press notices; its best tracks sounded like Sheryl Crow’s worst leftovers. But Potter and company still managed to keep a high profile because of their energetic stage shows and Potter’s feisty persona, which made the band’s interviews amusing.
With this self-titled effort, due out June 8, Hollywood Records has gone all out in an apparent effort to land the band in the Top 40 (where their other acts like Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers spend lots of time). They paired the group with producer Mark Batson, best known for his work with the Dave Matthews Band, Eminem and Jay-Z. Batson co-writes a few tracks and his influence has seemed to help the band focus harder on composition and arrangements.
The album cover also shows that there are other changes afoot. Not only are there a few new band members, but Potter has traded in her flannel shirts and jeans for short skirts and high heels. She’s also had her hair done up so that it looks like it’s out of a Maxim photo shoot. Hey, if she’s gonna take her place alongside Top 40 rockers like the Fray and Kings of Leon she’s gotta look the part, right?
The big surprise is that it all works. The record’s energy level surpasses anything the band has ever done, Potter’s singing is better than ever, and the songwriting finally matches the group’s instrumental abilities. Longtime fans needn’t be alienated either: Batson hasn’t shoehorned the group into some unsuitable format. What he’s done is amplified and sharpen what was already there.
Those crying “sell out” should look closer at the musical past of Potter, who is the band’s chief songwriter. Although she made a name for herself as a blues rocker on the group’s first two albums, “Original Soul” and “Nothing But the Water,” she had previously released a little-known solo EP, “Red Shoe Rebel,” where she covered Top 40 standards by the Police and Cyndi Lauper. The 2002 disc isn’t mentioned in any of the band’s press bios, so it’s something that Potter is clearly trying to forget, but it does show her roots lie in the mainstream.
“Grace Potter & the Nocturnals” shoots directly for the mainstream on its thirteen tracks, and usually hits the bull’s-eye. The album is front-loaded with a handful of potential hits, such as “Paris (Ooh La La),” which manages to rock hard and have a sense of humor (how often do you find that these days?). “If I was a man I’d make my move,” Potter sings, “If I was a blade I’d shave you smooth.”
The minor key blues “Medicine,” shows off the guitar interplay between the band’s longtime lead player, Scott Tournet and new guitarist Benny Yurco. The wistful “Goodbye Kiss” blends a loping reggae beat with a countrified arrangement and somehow works, mainly because its chorus is so infectious. The track also showcases the harmonies of the band’s new bassist Catherine Popper, late of Ryan Adams and the Cardinals.
The album’s first single, “Tiny Lights,” has a rousing chorus that matches the inherent buildup in its verses — something that couldn’t be said for any of the tracks on the last record. The piano ballad “Colors” has enough majesty and “bigness” to make it a crossover Adult Contemporary hit. Could a Potter “American Idol” night be in the works?
“Grace Potter & the Nocturnals” has its filler tracks, but the good stuff is so good that the boring tunes are easy to overlook. Fans of this band should also note that three of its members — Tournet, Yurco and drummer Matt Burr — released their second album as part of the side project Blues and Lasers on April 20. The record, titled “After All We’re Only Human,” is full of meat’n’potatoes classic guitar rock and makes for a tasty side dish to Potter’s main course.
Written by Express contributor Tony Sclafani
Photos by Adrien Broom