Thematically – the passage of time, relationships and the inevitable onward, unstoppable march of life permeate “The Lion, The Beast, The Beat”, the new release from Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. It wouldn’t be hard to read this record as a parable of a band on the doorstep of bigger success who may need to leave pieces of the past behind in order to fully face the future. Or maybe it’s just a batch of songs about the age old rock n’ roll themes of breakup and renewal. Either way it retains the well known GPN formula of expansive, guitar driven rock led by the shimmering vocal talents of Grace Potter. This time, however, those elements are supplemented by a funkier bass feel grounded in R&B stylings that includes staccato guitar grooves as well as a plethora of layered electronic keyboard effects that move the sound aggressively and proudly to “today” rather than miring it in the hollowed holes of “yesterday”.
Longtime fans of the rock and roll side of GPN will feel right at home with the opening track, “The Lion, The Beast, The Beat”, with its pounding tribal beat that encourages the listener to “Gas up the easy rider and head out for Nevada” and go along for the ride. This highly revved opener gets throttled back quickly though as the record moves to a set of more contemplative relationship tunes – “Never Go Back” and “Parachute Heart”. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the craftsmanship of these tunes and enjoy Dan Auerbach’s contribution to “Never Go Back” – the first single from the record. In fact, “Never Go Back” is one of my favorite songs on the record and I think it helps define the musical ideas of the whole project. Still, the front to back listening experience made me feel like a teenager who just got to second base only to have his parents burst through the basement door to pour cold water on his evening plans.
The powerful ballad “Stars”, however, brings the emotional level right back up with one of the most powerful vocals Grace has ever recorded. Acoustic guitar, piano and the longing cry of a distant slide guitar lead to a chorus that allows Grace to show us why USA Today just called her “The best female rock singer in the country”. Sometimes I imagine a back room of musical marketers and managers concocting an effective formula for introducing a ballad into this mix of songs and arguing about where to place this one. If you do it wrong it simply sounds like a placeholder, “Stars” is anything but – it almost soars off the speakers on its own.
“Timekeeper” plays directly on the albums themes by suggesting that “Before the beast can get away, there goes another day”. It’s tick tock tones add strong counter points to the songs lyrical content and reinforce the concept of no time to waste.
For me, “Loneliest Soul” is the song that best imagines the musical place Grace and the Nocs are driving to on this record. Ultra double funky baseline with a keyboard back beat and a repeated “Na na na na” chorus. Does it sound cheesy? It’s not – I love this song. Inventive, fun, danceable. The hell – I must be a Beyonce fan!
The next four tunes, “Turntable”, “Keepsake”, “Runaway” and “One Heart Missing” continue to add new elements of layered keyboards and show a strong R&B influence that threatens to push the rock guitar down a notch in importance. Not that that’s a bad thing, I’m enjoying the new layers of sophistication that are added throughout the record – I don’t need a screaming solo slotted in after every second verse to understand where this is all going. A few times I wondered when the horns were gonna come in and found myself disappointed that they didn’t. Even within the boundaries of recorded experimentation you can hear places that you know will allow the band to open up and lay some loud whoop ass down when playing these live. The final guitar solo on “Runaway” and the driving funk of “Turntable” are great examples of these ideas.
The final track “The Divide” brings the emotional feel of “The Lion, The Beast, The Beat” back to the forefront while it mimics the propulsive jam effect of an old classic song like “Stop The Bus” to ask the question – “If I don’t go how will I ever know what’s on the other side”? That line right there is the one isn’t it? The last two years has brought huge changes for the band and for Grace Potter specifically. Let’s call it “DisneyChesney” for shorthand purposes shall we? As opportunities arise, and they will, to participate in new projects, to play with more people to “Say Yes” (a phrase many of my longtime readers will relate to) what’s the best course of action? I know what the OWD’s (Old White Dudes) want Grace to do. Stay in a box, play the stuff “we” like don’t change. On “The Lion, The Beast, The Beat” Grace Potter and the Nocturals show that they are not interested in staying static.
If, as music lovers, we can believe that songs are an outlet for the soul and the individual spirit then I think we’re hearing a different answer, a different direction. “Gas up the easy rider”, pay attention to the lion, the beast and keep driving to the beat. After all – “If I don’t go how will I ever know what’s on the other side”?