Recording of October 2007: This Is Somewhere
Hollywood D00038502 (CD). 2007. Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, prods.; Mike Daly, prod., asst. eng.; Joe Chiccarelli, eng.; Kennie Takahashi, Travis Huff, Tim Bright, Wayne Warnecke, Otto D'Angelo, asst. engs. AAD? TT: 48:34
To paraphrase a gem from back when The Simpsons was funny: "Rock chicks—is there anything they can't do?"
Grace Potter, the most piquant rock frontwoman to come along in some time, and her adroit blues-rock quartet, the Nocturnals, have spent the past four years pounding the road and learning their craft, building toward this record. Along the way, young Grace, all of 24, has even become expert at the fine art of heckling hecklers, and often gives better than she gets. Responding to the archetypal moronic-dood mantra, she's been widely quoted as having served up this ace: "There are a lot more important things happening on stage right now than my tits!"
Potter, the not-so-nice Vermont girl with the velvet uppercut voice (whiskey-soaked would be the appropriate cliché), and her enterprising, zero-to-sixty band of drummer-boyfriend Matt Burr, guitarist Scott Tournet, and bassist Bryan Dondero, have served time in a number of stylistic gulags, including lite jazz-rock à la Norah Jones, and blues—to which they eventually added the suffix -rock. And sharing bills one too many times with jam bands got them lumped in with that undisciplined subgenre.
Now, however, they've obviously decided that for This Is Somewhere, their major-label debut, they'd borrow from each of those genres while exclusively worshipping none. This kind of expansive thinking has confused some followers; a few longtime fans feel they've sold out by recording a high-gloss number like "Mr. Columbus," which to uncommitted ears sounds like a band growing in good ways. What does sweet, demure Grace, from bucolic Waitsfield, Vermont, have to say about charges that this song symbolizes the Nocturnals' forsaking their blues-rock jam roots?
"It started out as a punk song. It really comes from sort of this punk, 'Well, fuck you if you think we're a jam band. We're going to write a three-and-a-half minute pop song. Watch this!'" (VermontToday.com)
Add to Potter's rabbit-punch mouth the facts she's got an imposing voice, can play both B-3 organ and Flying V guitar, and wrote every song on this album, and it suddenly snaps into focus that Potter and the Nocturnals have always been more than they appear to be.
Take the opening track, "Ah Mary." With Hollywood Records reputedly clamoring for a single (labels—will they never learn?), Potter bore down and came up with a near anthem that both teases and rocks. Its nasty-girl lyrics have sly political overtones ("Ah, Mary, Mary, Mary-Ca"), and Potter's heroic vocal performance conjures the ghost of Janis Joplin. There's even humor: the background vocals are by the "Booty Call Choir." Oh yeah, and it's radio-ready.
After that multifaceted beginning, This Is Somewhere then goes everywhere. With all the touring, it's natural there'd be a road song—the loud, mashy, Crazy Horse–influenced "Stop the Bus." The quieter "Apologies" has a Jackson Browne–like progression. As for that dreaded pop tune, "Mr. Columbus" is an appealing coup, one of those moments when you can clearly hear a songwriter stepping up to new levels of vision and skill. Potter says she wrote it after seeing Iggy Pop sing "I Wanna Be Your Dog." Whatever the inspiration, it's panting powerpop, with Potter's B-3 and glimmering voice leading the way.
Potter's ballads, such as "You May See Me," are equally lustrous, her falsetto often sounding, in more than a flash, like Bonnie Raitt's. The album closes with the potent one-two of "Falling or Flying," in which Potter's lyrical skills kick into overdrive: "The air's so heavy / it could drown a Butterfly / if it flew too high . . . are we falling or flying / are we living or dying / I guess we'll never know / striking rock or hitting gold." Here, as in much of the rest of the album, Tournet's guitar reveals itself to be the band's other source of energy and lan, as he first strums menacing chords, then soars into gloriously toned solos. At times he, too, channels Raitt, catching something of the way she attacks a guitar.
The final track, "Big White Gate," is a gospel shouter about a tortured woman who specialized in singing and sinning and now, on her deathbed, desperately hopes that there might be a way in the hereafter for her to redeem her tainted soul—appropriate enough for a band reaching higher.
Produced by ex-Whiskeytown multi-instrumentalist Mike Daly, this is one of the finer-sounding rock records I've heard in quite a while: respectable dynamic range, an even instrumental spread across a realistic space, nice detail, and none of the usual vocal-centric problems that come when a singer is the focus of the act.
Throwbacks and proud of it, the tough-talking Grace Potter and her talented Nocturnals may have hit their high point with This Is Somewhere. All of their ideas may have gone into this one, but for now, it's gratifying to see this rock chick and her crew doin' it old-school: touring, absorbing lots of music, and writing better songs. The beauty part is the way they make such a complicated recipe sound easy.—Robert Baird