The next time someone needs an old abandoned building demolishing they needn’t bother with all that hiring a wrecking ball kerfuffle just get Miss Grace Potter to pop over and blow that Mutha down with her lungs. Honestly Potter’s got the vocal arsenal of a Greek God — part Joplin, part Boudica, all lethal weapon. A voice designed to tear off roofs and tear-up hearts. A force of nature so incendiary her band’s sassily-titled fourth album should come with a health sticker warning “Play Indoors at Owner’s Risk”.
Thus The Lion, The Beast, The Beat proves itself a mischievously devilish quandary. Conceptually it’s “A play on the duality of human nature”; the polished, well-mannered 9-to-5 exterior versus the filthy beast with an appetite for destruction that lurks seething within. Sadly for us the focus here proves too much on the former and so rarely — albeit memorably — on the latter. Do we go to the movies to see Doctor David Banner totterin’ about in his lab coat, lookin’ befuddled at Bunsen burners and test tubes? No way Mr. McGee, we want the Hulk, veins-a-poppin’, pissed off and batshit crazy, tossin’ tanks like stones into the sea and swatting helicopters like mosquitoes. In other words, let’s open the cage…
The album roars into glorious life with the titular track and it feels like the stage is set for one of the year’s great records. All John “The Beast” Bonham drums, smoulderin’ axes and Mrs Mojo Risin’ conjuring the spirits of every bad ass outlaw ever to don a leather jacket. “Someone let the beast out,” caterwauls Potter before unleashin’ some serious heads-down Motorhead-bangin’ boogie. A litany of deserts, motorbikes and burning horizons rise and despite being as subtle as a denim’d knee to the knackers it’s pant-wettingly thrilling. Put simply, you wouldn’t think twice about ditching your dearly beloved and jumpin’ on the back of Potter’s Harley. Not that she’d give you a choice. When it crashes into a fireball collision you almost expect them to holler “Goodnight Earth!” and run off stage, grab a fluffy white robe and dive straight into a waiting limo.
After such an apocalyptic dawn, much of the rest of Lion seems comparatively, mildly tamed ‘n’ trained. The heart of the Lion would appear to beat to the sound of FM radio pop-rock not towering, tsunami-tickling riffery. A birrova shame. “Never Go Back” skips like fairies and ice cream by comparison. Picture the handclappin’ beatbox hopskotch of Sheryl Crow’s “A Change Would Do You Good”. Dandy, but Ma’am didn’t we just have our faces melted ‘n’ minds blown? “I’m never goin’ back there no more” decrees Potter… but we wish she would.
The Lion‘s share is, by and large, similarly familiar to the point where the night is alive with cat burglars rather than, well, actual cats. Although they do cherry pick their treasures entertainingly. The California dreamin’, tall grass ‘n’ long skirted whimsy of “Parachute Heart” echoes Fleetwood Mac’s “Gypsy” whereas the soft-focus, soft rockin’ hells-a-bellowin’ “Timekeeper” could be mid-80s Cher. So much so you wouldn’t be surprised if a mulleted beefcake in a vest suddenly broke out a Sax solo. Elsewhere the sparky “Turntable” offers a bar band brawl between the verses of Britney’s fizzy “Do Something” and the chorus of My Chemical Romance’s “Na Na Na”. “Put your needle in my groove,” purrs Potter saucily. Later, the rockabilly bass and staccato piano of “Loneliest Soul” is the Queens of the Stone Age’s “No One Knows” in all but title. As ever Potter provides scintillating Garbo cool “I am the loneliest soul / So leave me alone.” Her schmokin’ vocals can even make the weakest material — the dull, boorish “Keepsake” and clichéd album low “Runaway” — inviting and she could probably sing the phone book and it’d sound devastating and fraught with derring-do.
Whilst this is all diverting you do get the suspicion that Potter and her night owls have hit the cruise control button and by half-time you’d be forgiven for dialling down expectations yourself as the fires fade. There are a couple of mid-set crackers though. The divine “Stars” is “Knockin’ on Heavens Door” strapped to a comet. A gospel ting’d, Grand Ole Opry weepfest and when Potter triggers that tidal wave chorus — “STAAAARRS” — it’s a cosmic supernova in the sky. Absolutely blinding. A vintage foot-on-the-amp, lighters-in-the-air, ‘together alone’ moment. The 11th-hour uber ballad “One Heart Missing” maybe as cheesy as Mr Fromage’s Fromage Factory (“If love is made for two / There’s one heart missing”) but it’ll be heart-wrenching live. What does it sound like? Yeah Yeah Yeah’s “Maps” in a Stetson.
Contrary tinkers that they are, Potter ‘n’ Pals bow out and wag the Lion’s tail with a song equal in stature to their glorious opening salvo. The brooding “The Divide” fuses the slow marchin’ dread of Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” with the twitchin’ fever of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android”. Obviously then it’s immense, vivacious, wild. Potter is recast as the Siren, all love on the rocks and howlin’ at hope on the horizon. “If I don’t go, how will I know what’s on the other side?” Dynamite dynamism with electric tension, raw power and yes, greatness — it’s everything this record should’ve been all along.
The Lion, The Beast, The Beat is a good record bookended by two moments of greatness. Yet Lion is too often content to jump through hoops, roll over and let you tickle its soft, white underbelly when it’s so clearly capable of something far more impressive. When you know the mighty lion can roar and shake the mountains above a simple meow just ain’t the same.