Vermont’s Grace Potter and the Nocturnals have been together for only a short time, releasing their debut, Original Soul, in 2004. They’ve come a long way fast, though, scoring opening slots for the likes of Gillian Welch, Gov’t Mule, and the Black Crowes. Their songs have even made the TV rounds, with “Falling or Flying” showing up on a Grey’s Anatomy finale and “Nothing But the Water” appearing on American Idol; the Nocturnals themselves have been all over the talk show circuit with an Austin City Limits performance also scheduled.
This sudden success comes as no surprise after hearing the group’s major label debut, This is Somewhere, which greatly ups the energy level over both Original Soul and 2005’s follow-up, Nothing But the Water. If there’s one word to describe This is Somewhere, it’s “ambitious.” It’s radio-ready, stage-ready, and maybe even arena-ready (one cut, “Apologies”, sounds like it has the lighter-holding crowd sway built right in), but without a sense of calculated hit-seeking. If someone at Hollywood coached them on the art of the single, that tampering’s well-hidden; this sounds like the band’s natural sound, only bigger and broader. Showing flashes of everything from old school Bonnie Raitt or Tom Petty, new-school bluesiness a la Joan Osborne, or bits and pieces of Tuesday Night Music Club-era Sheryl Crow, Potter and the Nocturnals sound awfully comfortable in their slightly bluesy, straight-ahead rock niche.
Lyrically, the disc’s a mix of requisite love-going-good / love-gone-wrong tracks, story-like vignettes, and even some political commentary. By the end of “Mary”, you realize that “Mary” is short for “America”, which brings some context to lines like “She’ll bake you cookies / Then she’ll burn your town” and “She’s got dirty money she plays with all the time / She waters the garden but maybe she just likes the hoses.” What sounds like an America-bashing track, though, is a bit more complex; “Mary” also contains sentiments like, “Ashes ashes, but she won’t fall down” and “She’s the beat of my heart”. “Ain’t No Time”, ostensibly inspired by post-Katrina New Orleans, offers “Purple mountain’s majesty has turned all black and blue”. If nothing else, Potter has a knack for pulling out a live wire lyric when she wants to. Non-political, but no less ambivalent, love songs like “Apologies” and “You May See Me” exhibit the band’s ability to veer from introspection to proclamation in about three minutes’ time.
Potter and the Nocturnals (guitarist Scott Tournet, bassist Bryan Dondero, and drummer Matt Burr) deliver it all with a grandiose, classic rock-informed sense of dynamics. Throughout This is Somewhere, the songs build to crescendos and explode into hook-laden choruses. From the distant blasts of harmonica on “Stop the Bus” to the horns that shore up “Mastermind” to the delicate mandolin filigree in “Lose Some Time”, the band shows a good sense of texture. There’s a definite sense of enthusiasm, of wanting to bring out every song’s full potential.
While that enthusiasm makes This is Somewhere succeed—occasionally on pure energy—it’s also the downfall of a few songs. The band storms ahead with some generic guitar wails to mirror Potter’s cries of “Hey-ay” in “Stop the Bus”. “Mr. Columbus”, probably the record’s weakest song, also sounds heavy-handed in its arrangement. Vocally, Potter occasionally succumbs to the temptation to wring everything she can from her expressive voice, even taking on a distracting southern accent every time she utters the word “sing” in “Big White Gate”. This is Somewhere is the sound of a young band swinging for the fences—and while they hit the occasional pop-up—Grace Potter and the Nocturnals succeed more often than not.