[4 February 2009]
Can a supergroup be unassuming? Can an album which features rock luminaries go under the radar? In the case of the New York City collective Gramercy Arms, the answer to both questions may just be yes.
The UK’s The Guardian has aptly dubbed Gramercy Arms, who take their name from a ten-story building in New York City, “a supergroup that doesn’t suck”. Principal songwriter Dave Derby leads the ensemble, which includes members from such heavy hitters as Guided by Voices, Luna, Joan as Police Woman, Dead Air, and the Dambuilders, as they trek through a brisk, 30-minute exercise in constructing stellar, retro-flavored melodic pop gems. Notably, the record also features vocal cameos from Nada Surf frontman Matthew Caws (“Fakin’”) and Sarah Silverman (yep, that Sarah Silverman) who appears on “Looking at the Sun”.
The collective’s eponymous LP is stylistically consistent throughout: Derby and his merry band concentrate their efforts on creating breezy, uptempo rock with its gaze fixed squarely on pop giants of the past. Infectious melodies, forward-charging guitar riffs, and stacked harmonies are in sweet abundance. While the overall feel and dynamic of the album never really change over the course of ten tracks, its brevity and catchiness more than account for any potential style/genre fatigue.
The hallmark of the record is, indeed, stellar songwriting. The tracks certainly feel pristine but never come across as overly polished. While many of the melodies, riffs, and backing vocals would have been at home on AM radio three or four decades ago, there is a timeless feel to much of the material. To be sure, qualities of the British Invasion and early ‘70s folk rock are relied on here, but they feel like a natural outgrowth of these particular musicians’ energy at this particular time, never borrowed or drifting toward pastiche.
Gramercy Arms get down to business immediately with the jangly guitar feel and call-and-response vocals of the opening cut, “Automatic”, which is insistent without being aggressive, fun without being frivolous. Next up, “Looking at the Sun” begins with a gently gliding acoustic guitar; the song feels open and carefree from the get-go, allowing the space for one of Derby’s most effortless melodies. By the time the drums initiate a shuffling beat and the vocalists build their refrain on the syllable “ba”, the song is set to take over the listener and bound to result in sing-alongs and tapped toes.
Going forward, the record continues on in the vein established by these opening tracks. “Nothing I Can Do” is another standout, built around a gently insistent pulse and a pleasing chord progression. Likewise, “Since Last September” is a solid, midtempo rock tune with a wonderful melodic bent. “Wander On” is another of the album’s highlights. With an opening piano/percussion duet that sounds faintly Fray-esque, it is one of the more “modern” sounding tracks on the record.
Frequently, when established artists step away from their expected roles and approach a side project or supergroup, it fails to burnish their reputation, instead detracting and distracting from their main body of work. This is not the case with Gramercy Arms. Each musician involved can and should be proud of what is a really solid endeavor. It’s nice to hear successful musicians do something that actually enhances their legacy.
While the project is never terribly ambitious or weighty, it accomplishes what it sets out to do from the start: provide listeners with enjoyable pop and allow its participants to showcase another side of their musical personas. With that criteria, Gramercy Arms is a success on all counts.