Grand National: A Drink and a Quick Decision
Positions Grand National as an important artistic force that is far from exhausting its seemingly bottomless wellspring of inspiration.
Not too long ago, I attended a performance by Grand National in New York City while the band promoted the digital release of its new album, A Drink and a Quick Descision. Having twirled around shamelessly in my apartment to "Cherry Tree", a Cerrone-derive disco throwback from the debut album, Kicking the National Habit (2004), I had expected an orgy of synthesizers and the obligatory laptop programmer that has somehow replaced actual instruments in concert performances of late. Instead, the beats of "Drink to Moving On" and "Peanut Dreams" -- two highlights from the debut disc -- were replaced by acoustic guitars. I was pleasantly surprised. I never doubted the group's penchant for writing pop hooks, but the absence of musical ornamentation drew even more attention to the quality of the craft. That particular characteristic, which made the concert so engaging, is key to the appeal of Grand National's latest batch of tunes. With a title that cops a line from an old Hall and Oates' hit ("She's Gone"), A Drink and a Quick Decision serves up ten new tracks of pop experiments by Rupert Lyddon and Lawrence "La" Rudd, a.k.a. the forces behind Grand National.
Let's start with the single. "By the Time I Get Home There Won't Be Much of a Place for Me" summarizes all the strengths of Lyddon and Rudd' songwriting and producing talents. Even if singing about vacant social situations ("When I go to see them we talk about nothing"), they know how to have fun. The tune chugs along with a hard 4/4 beat and anthemic sing-a-long melody. (It's definitely a contender for this year's "Best Use of Cowbell" award, an honor bestowed upon the Rapture for Pieces of the People We Love from last year). It also embodies the trademark of Grand National: a melodic fusion of acoustic and electronic instrumentation. The organic veneer of the acoustic guitar, presumably the instrument that most of these songs were composed on, coupled with the synthesized blips and beeps yields a unique musical atmosphere on "By the Time ...". The brooding rhythm track of "Animal Sounds" is another example. The low, deep tones of the bassline are like the epidermis over the song's skeleton as it leeringly crawls underneath Rudd's voice.
The album's moment of excellence is undoubtedly "Going to Switch the Lights On", the most indispensable track on A Drink and a Quick Decision. Every ingredient just works. It begins with a flamenco-flavored guitar rhythm, a distant drumbeat, and a church-like organ that plays the inverse note progression of the guitar. A smattering of drums opens the song up to a somewhat dark chorus that's punctuated by horns. A heavy bass riff is layered just beneath the chorus. The simplicity of the verses -- guitar, bass, drums, and lead vocals -- thrillingly contrasts with the darkly festive chorus.
Even among such thrills, though, there are a few shortcomings. If there's one major point of contention about the songs on A Drink and a Quick Decision, it's the vagueness in some of the lyrics. The grooves are there but the words don't always come across, such as on "Close Approximation": "You do a sweet impersonation of a girlfriend looking at you". What is that supposed to mean? Maybe nothing. Perhaps when the beat is so infectious, words are less crucial to enjoying the song. The other problem, and it definitely influences any understanding of the lyrics, is that the vocals are buried in the mix. "Reason to Hide In" and "By the Time I Get Home There Won’t Be Much of a Place for Me" suffer somewhat from this technicality. Rudd and Lyddon tend to have a cool detachment to their lyrics; the emphasis seems to be more about the mood conjured by the sound and tone of their voices rather than the actual words they're singing.
A Drink and a Quick Decision will be devoured by those who enjoyed Kicking the National Habit. There are plenty of musical ideas to go around and, in some ways, the songwriting and melodies are more elaborate than those on its predecessor, albeit some of those ideas go a bit long ("Weird Ideas At Work", "Tongue", and "Cut By the Brakes" would be more enjoyable if edited down by a minute or so). "Joker and Clown", "Pack All the Things You Need", and "Part of a Corner" will surprise those only familiar with Grand National's dancefloor hits. They illustrate a more introspective and contemplative side of the duo that rounds out the more upbeat material. Ultimately, A Drink and a Quick Decision positions Grand National as an important artistic force that is far from exhausting its seemingly bottomless wellspring of inspiration.