The Grand National is not a band, it’s a horse race. Grand National is a band, and you’d be well advised to visit a doctor if, after listening to Kicking the National Habit, you thought it was a horse race. The Grand National is a 7.2km-long, two-circuit, 30-fence race held annually near Liverpool in the United Kingdom. Due to an inexplicable tracking cock-up, Grand National’s debut album takes you through an 80-minute-long, 17-track, three-remix slog whose occasional moments of brilliance burn slightly less bright by the bitter end.
From London, not Liverpool, Grand National is Rupert Lyddon and Lawrence (goes by ‘La’) Rudd. Their album was released almost two years ago in Britain, and you’d think that all that’s happened, musically, between May 2004 and now could taint this release with a little ‘04 tarnish. Luckily, listening to Kicking the National Habit, you’re immediately refreshed: the songs, more electronica than rock, are constructed around laid-back loops of melody and repetitive, mellow beats, and strum and lap their way into your brain. It’s an ‘80s summer album made 2000s-style, without the slightest regard for the aggressively jaunty dance-rock popularized by the slew of Brit indies hanging around. And precisely because the music is so uncool right now—though, somehow, made without a shred of nostalgia—Grand National have captured an insular, breezy mood that is perfect for Sunday afternoons and velvet lounge-club sofas.
The music of a few bands has obviously influenced Grand National—the Police’s ska-tinged slick pop, New Order’s insistent basslines, the Happy Mondays’ groovy optimism. But for me, a few newer bands provide a firmer touchstone. The songwriting on Habit is reminiscent of recent Franz Ferdinand-support act Cut Copy; compare “Going Nowhere”, with its melancholy voice and floating melodic line, to any of the upbeat cuts off this album. Similar, too, are the robot-plucked dance-blips of the Presets’ “Girl and the Sea”, though that fashion-conscious duo veers more to the dance end of the spectrum than Grand National. Of all three, Grand National is the least schizophrenic—all the tracks are of a single ‘type’, and it’s a type well constructed, wound tight around Lyddon’s smooth, whispery vocals and La’s disco-funky beats.
The album dishes up some real corkers—tracks that hum and spin their way into your consciousness with a sophisticated insistence. They’ve been playing “Talk Amongst Yourselves” a bit on Australian radio over the past couple of months, and it’s so damn catchy that when I unwrapped this CD, merely the sight of it caused the neon melody to lodge in my head, clamp-like, for days. That’s a true single—shimmery and slick, with polished electro melody. The subtler sounds of other songs seep into your head slinky-step-wise: “Drink to Moving On” with a simple “let’s drink to moving on” chorus; “Cherry Tree” when it explodes into ‘80s dancefloor splendour; “Playing in the Distance” with its preppy stomp beat and an inexplicable trumpet-coiled festival cadenza.
There’s one problem, and it’s not insignificant: with the best three songs at positions 1-2-3, there’s only one place to go. This would be fine, as the next seven tracks offer plenty to keep us listening, if not blown away (“Boner”, for example, plays all goofy ska-beat until the silky vocals come in to save it). But whosever idea it was to combine four album-length (not-quite-album quality) bonus tracks and three remixes (two of the same song) on the same disc as the album itself made a big mistake. Almost doubling the length of the album, the bonus material seems at best redundant; at worst, it detracts from the qualities of the band’s music, because too much repetition (playing in the dis-tance, playing in the dis-tance) snuffs the spark dead. All it would have taken was a bonus disc.
That’s why Kicking the National Habit feels a little bit like its horse race namesake, I guess. It’s a pity, because there are a few tracks that nail with near perfection the kind of ethereal synth-pop that sings summer, parties, and unabashed enjoyment.