The old expression “With age comes wisdom” can be a curse rather than a blessing within the parameters of rock ‘n’ roll.
Sometimes a band writes more mature material that doesn’t register with its core fan base, or maybe the maturity results in new material that really only satisfies the musicians. The fourth studio album by Austin, Texas-based Grand Champeen, Dial T For This (In Music We Trust), is appealing and shows artistic growth, making past albums seem underdeveloped in comparison.
From the opening notes of “What It Beats,” which is augmented by some nice string arrangements and light piano, it’s obvious that the band — singer/guitarist Channing Lewis, guitarist Michael Crow, bassist Alex Livingstone and drummer Ned Stewart — is focused on making a different sounding album than their previous efforts. Grand Champeen’s other three albums were primarily an extension of its powerhouse live show, one of indie rock’s best. And although there were some flashes of greatness on those prior works, especially “Broken Records” from 2001’s Battle Cry For Help, they were more passion than polish.
One of Grand Champeen’s best traits has been showing off its influences. The band usually is compared to rock’s big three from Minneapolis — The Replacements, Husker Du and Soul Asylum — but it’s obvious that Lewis and company are putting their own spin into the mix now. On “Nice of You to Join Us,” an early album highlight, Grand Champeen marries the bright cynicism that Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner has displayed in his career on with the slightest hint of Texas swing, and the result is a great tune.
Another strong song that warrants repeat listening is “Wounded Eye.” This freight train of a tune is powered by Livingstone’s exceptional bass playing and some tight vocal harmonies from all involved. This song harkens back to the power-pop handy work of Superdrag, even down to Lewis’ passionate screams toward the end of the track.
There are some songs on the album that could have benefited from more thought and/or a different approach. “Raul Vela” starts out with a cool guitar intro, but the song never gets more interesting than its first 15 seconds. It would have been better suited as a stripped-down acoustic arrangement; the guitar parts take too much away from the vocal lines and render the lyrics irrelevant. Then there’s the track “Rottweiler Hair,” which reads better than it is. It’s merely a filler track that, thankfully, is on the short side.
The band does rally at the end of the album and closes strong by shining up its Big Star admiration on “Take Me Home.” Stewart’s drumming is in the spotlight, as he pulls off some great flourishes. But the best part about the song is that it’s literally about a band being a band. It’s an honest portrayal of the fact that as much fun as music is, it’s still a job. Granted, if there was a song about how much it sucks being a coffin maker, the message might not connect like this one does.
All in all, this sounds like the album Grand Champeen wanted to make. It’s surely a step in the right direction, and it gives the group something to be proud of. Better yet, it gives the group an arsenal of new, different-sounding songs to take on the road.
— By Mike Madden