The Grand are launching their debut album ‘Incapacitated, Ill-fated and In Love’ on May 24th at the legendary Players Bar in Wakefield, where they will be performing live for the lucky few punters that manage to get hold of tickets that will, before the month is out, be as rare and as prized as those sought by Charlie Bucket et al.
A few weeks ago I received a memo from Andy Jennings, head of The Department of Drums and Cymbals at The Grand, asking if I’d like to write a blog about said album to coincide with said album launch, which, naturally, I agreed to do. So, here I am and there you are, and as this is a blog and not a review as such I’m going to start at the very beginning. We’ll get to the album in a bit.
Before The Grand were The Grand they were Shakeshudder.
Around 2008, if I recall correctly, Shakeshudder had a bunch of fairly average indie rock tunes that didn’t really set them apart from any other local band of a similar ilk. It wasn’t offensive to the ear by any stretch, but then neither is the sound of cows mooing in a field. All was not lost, however, because Shakeshudder had one song entitled ‘Blue In My Heart’ (http://www.last.fm/music/Shakeshudder/_/Blue+in+my+heart) that was, by a country mile, the best song in their set. It must have been, because I listened to all of it, listened to all of it more than once – because I wanted to – and consequently committed it to memory.
Now I’m not usually given to remembering songs by average local indie rock bands, I mean, who is, aside from singer’s dad, A.K.A. the band’s manager, but this song managed to enter my lugholes, sneak beyond the security eardrum and the road manager cochlea and worm itself firmly into my backstage brain. I couldn’t stop singing the opening bass line to myself but, more importantly, the vocal line in the chorus stuck also, which is the absolute minimum requirement of any song if it is to instill the desire to hear it again.
In short, that one song showed that Shakeshudder could write a memorable tune (a towering achievement for an average local indie rock band and a major leap forwards in an unsigned band’s career, trust me) and that given time to develop they could break the bonds of averageness and become a good local indie rock band, the kind of band people would go see for reasons other than obligations of friendship, kinship or sexual relationship.
Sometime in 2010 Shakeshudder ceased to be. Along with the change of name came a certainty of purpose and an assuredness that comes to a band when they not only begin to write consistently good material but also consistently write better and stronger material, each song more accomplished than the last.
The Grand’s first EP (http://thegrandwakefield.bandcamp.com/album/the-grand), released that same year, showed that Blue In My Heart was no career defining high, no fluke, no anomalous tune that got caught in the net while the rest slipped through. In truth, it’s a cohesive yet transitional body of work. Across the six tracks echoes of Shakeshudder remained, predominantly in Tom Peel’s overdriven guitar, but the roots of certain other key, musical, lyrical and sonic themes, which would later come to define The Grand’s sound, can also be found here. It’s the sound of a band changing their wardrobe, finding out what’s new, what still fits and what’s off to the charity shop.
I was fortunate enough to be at the launch of The Grand’s second EP, ‘Harbour’, released in the December of 2011 (http://thegrandwakefield.bandcamp.com/album/harbour) and even more fortunate to witness them perform the title track during their soundcheck. I confess, until that night I hadn’t made the effort to go see them play live in quite some time, so it hit me even harder just how much better they had got in the 18 months since the release of their eponymous first EP.
What I heard was a huge stylistic and aesthetic departure from previous works. Most significantly, I believe, was the absence of the frenetic, overdriven, guitars that filled every available space on previous recordings and the introduction of a cleaner, more concise and considered, minimalist approach, allowing space for the tighter than tight rhythm section to breathe and the vocal melodies to shine. In a lot of ways it is this single change that makes Harbour the moment that The Grand became a unique proposition.
Incapacitated, Ill-fated and In Love picks up the baton where Harbour left off and, frankly, fucks off into the distance with it. Everything about this album is a step up and a step forwards. Tighter arrangements, bigger hooks, a higher level of sophistication in the production, greater lyrical depth, inspired performances… It is, in every sense, a far more accomplished and complete body of work that, much like all great works of art, inhabits its own space and time into which you are invited to delve as deep as your desire to explore the world created within will take you.
If The Grand’s first long player were a city it would probably look like Los Angeles, as seen in Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic sci-fi thriller, Blade Runner – epic, yet claustrophobic, all the while taking a pounding from an oppressively, hard, hard, rain. This dystopian world that The Grand have built of concrete monoliths under black, brooding, skies is inhabited by dark hearts, flawed characters and victims of circumstance, each living as best they can, or not at all, with whatever uncomfortable truths keep them awake at night.
Indeed, Incapacitated, Ill-fated and In Love is a brutally stark study in the frailties of the human condition, set against a backdrop of vice, lust, regret and failure, where folks get whatever they can get and guilty secrets are revealed like a film noir detective shining a flashlight onto the seedy underbelly of modern life. This is a city where the darkness on the edge of town has spread inwards, enveloping every neon lit circus and side street in its wake, seeping in through the cracks of a million bedroom windows to induce feverish dreams in those who sleep therein.
And yet, there is also hope to be found in the cruel, long forgotten, corners of this world, in the sense that for every silver lining there is a dark cloud. Even in the most desperate of times love can be found in the lowest of places, albeit an imperfect love shared by imperfect lovers. Fears can be overcome in the face of the most certain of ugly fates, so long as the courage to imagine a better outcome is not crushed by them, and, even if it comes too late, weak men can be forgiven their trespasses if they truly seek redemption.
Lead vocalist and bassist, Russ Smith has, quite simply, the most unique voice in popular music since John Fogerty and he uses it to give voice perfectly to the players in this bleak crucible of futility. Howling, straining, wrestling with every line as it fights back, struggling against its own difficult birth, you can almost see the tendons prominent in Smith’s neck as he delivers each nuanced syllable of each and every word. On the opening lines of ‘I Don’t Want To Make You Happy, I Want To Make You Cry’ when he sings ‘Last night I slept, bruised and twisted in your arms/Loneliness crept, trailing her fingers through the dark’ and the lines that follow you know that our protagonist is one unfortunate, tortured, bastard but you know also exactly how tortured by virtue of the authenticity of the performance.
Lyrically, Smith explores the theme of dysfunctional love, doomed to failure, on pretty much every track where tides of betrayal sweep the powerless away, lovers become unwilling voyeurs in the breakdown of their own relationships and the harsh realities of the godless apocalypse in which they find themselves living brings them to an emotional and moral breaking point. If that all sounds a little too intense for you do not worry, the music itself will keep you well away from the brink, it being the sound of the melodic, infectious, intelligent and irresistible synergy between three people who are quite obviously meant to be making music together. Have a listen to Love Will Tear Us Apart again and tell me that after hearing that performance by those four musicians you still don’t feel some level of euphoria, in spite of the lyrical content.
At this point you may be imagining something akin to Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem For A Dream meets The National’s Trouble Will Find Me meets Ryan Adam’s Heartbreaker and you wouldn’t be a million miles away in terms of the multiple narratives that run through all three with rarely a happy ending between them. However, the saving grace here is that you will not care how bleak things seem to get because, like all three, Incapacitated, Ill-fated and In Love is a complex, engaging and thought provoking work that will have you returning for another hit, another crack at peeling back the layers and another attempt to reconcile that which you know to be true of the human condition with the unpalatable truth that it all might just apply to you, time after time after time.
Yes, Incapacitated, Ill-fated and In Love is thematically challenging and, no, it isn’t Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes, but to paraphrase Julian Casablancas, interviewed for the NME shortly before the release of Is This It, they’re ‘young, good looking and the music’s fucking great’.