The title of the new album by retro-rockers Grand Mal couldn't be more fitting. The New York City band has specialized in bringing back the classic hard rock sounds of the early '70s for the past seven years, but thanks to some dumb luck, such as releasing their second album more than a year before the big New York rock renaissance broke out in 2001, their music happened to go unnoticed by scenesters. Now, four years after their last album, they've come around once more, this time, just as the massive hype has started to wane, with good bands like The Strokes and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs starting to lose their initial luster in the eyes of trend-followers. So yeah, Bad Timing is a hilariously apt title for this new Grand Mal album.
Led by singer/songwriter/guitarist/keyboardist Bill Whitten, and supported by a lineup of band members that has constantly rotated over the years, Grand Mal sound, and look, like they've come straight from the grimy streets of New York City 30 years ago, channeling the best music from that pre-punk era. Their sound seems like one that's been done before by countless bar bands, but as you listen to them, you begin to hear some variety in each song, interesting little hints of other sounds that keep things from getting too monotonous. Produced by Dave Fridmann (he of Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev, and Sparklehorse fame), Bad Timing is a very solid rock 'n' roll record that, despite recycling sounds that we've heard so many times before, still manages to sound fresh and energetic.
The rollicking "1st Round K.O." kicks things off with its cool Stones riff, some great background singers, and some fabulously hedonistic lyrics peppered with some sly, witty moments from Whitten ("I want to be alone unless the world collapses / Or I reverse myself, you know I'm prone to lapses"). "Bad Timing" has a Stones-meets-T.Rex feel, with Whitten sneering his verses a la Lou Reed circa 1972, and Flaming Lips member Steven Drozd providing great bar band piano fills, playing Nicky Hopkins to Grand Mal's Rolling Stones. Meanwhile, there's a very nice hint of Big Star in "Quicksilver", both with its chiming guitars and Whitten's sweet lyrics ("My stupid heart loves loud guitars / And girls with crooked grins"), while "Old Fashioned" is just that, a greasy, trashy tune with more of a glam influence, made all the more fun by Whitten's hilarious wordplay: "I'm in love with this actress / She only fucks black chicks / Though when she's stoned she likes dancing with me / She says I look like a fascist / With my black moustaches and my field jacket from 1963."
"Duty Free" is a great, streetwise, New York Dolls imitation, circa "Personality Crisis" ("She's standing on the corner / Smoking marijuana / Drinking Hi-C"), while the down-home acoustic blooze jam "Flowin' Tide" is reminiscent of those acoustic interludes on Let It Bleed. The dark, gospel-tinged "Black Aura" pulls off that sound much more easily than Primal Scream's ill-advised attempts at the same sound a decade ago, while "Get Lost" is a terrific, wistful, piano-driven portrait of the down-and-out ("You look like a star / But you're living at the movies"). Bad Timing peaks midway through with the masterful ballad "Disaster Film", an extended stream-of-consciousness narrative by Whitten, much like one of those drunken, world-weary ballads Mick and Keith crafted so brilliantly in the late '60s and early '70s. Over a sad piano, mournful guitars, and weepy mellotron, Whitten sings about a dead friend and muses about his other friends who seem to be on a similarly self-destructive path: Things he used to say . . . all that talk in the bar at the end of the day / 'Cut my ashes with cocaine, then dump 'em out of an airplane' / Flying home to JFK, I got this lump in my throat that will not go away."
A few of the songs on the album don't work as well, but Fridmann's production and Whitten's fantastic lyric writing always keep thing from getting too boring. A big problem with all the recent bands resurrecting the sound of old-time hard rock is, though their hearts are always in the right place, the songwriting seems to be lacking, but in Grand Mal's case, that's not a problem at all. With all the young bands trying to play louder than each other, these black-clad New York veterans are more in tune with the subtleties of playing honest rock music, and come the end of the year, after the "The" bands have had their say, Bad Timing should rank among the best of the year's crop of revivalist rock 'n' roll. Here's hoping their timing is good, for once.