The Grip Weeds wear their influences like badges of honor.
The New Jersey band plays the kind of jangly, space-age rock perfected by bands like the Zombies, Love, and the Quicksilver Messenger Service. There are elements of the Byrds circa “Eight Miles High” or The Notorious Byrd Brothers, Revolver-era Beatles, and San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury bands. Start with the heavy reliance on lush harmonies, mix in acoustic and electric guitars (complete with backward playing and some Coltrane-esque twisting solos), an insistent rhythm track, and ethereal lyrics, and the listener could easily believe himself lost in a time warp.
All of this is intentional, of course. It begins with the CD art, its giant genie front image and psychedelic paisley inside. There are several band photos washed over with the photographic equivalent of reverb, a swirl of right colors that play off the vintage ’60s clothing worn by the band. And then there’s the band’s name, based on Sgt. Gripweed, John Lennon’s character in the mid-’60s film How I Won the War.
The Grip Weeds’ newest CD, Giant on the Beach, creates a different world for the listener, from the opening strands of the disc — a spacey bit of synthesizer that swirls into a very far-Eastern-sounding guitar line, which in turn gives way to aggressive guitars — through to the final cut, “Get By”, which opens with a driving chord progression that sounds like a cross between “Ohio” and a toned-down Deep Purple riff, before sliding into another Beatles-esque vocal.
For the most part, this alternate universe offers a lot of pleasure. Few bands out there now have the musical knowledge or self-confidence to try to rescue a musical style that is fast fading into the dustbins of classic rock radio. First, you have to have the chops to make this kind of homage work, and the Grip Weeds do. Kurt Reil has an explosive drum technique that propels the music, drives it ahead. His partner in rhythm, bassist Michael Kelly, lends a thick bottom to the music, keeping it grounded. On top of this foundation, guitarists Rick Reil — Kurt’s brother — and Kristin Pinelli spin musical gold, supplying snaking solos and intricate fills, creating a musical mise en scene.
On songs like “Waiting for a Sign”, everything comes together and, somehow, from within this tightly controlled environment the band manages to create something fresh and modern. Equally powerful are those songs — like the delightful “Sight Unseen”, which is pure Byrds, or the simple acoustic declaration “Give Me Some of Your Ways” — on which the band dispenses with all pretensions and just revels in its ’60s fixation.
Giant on the Beach, however, is not without its flaws — and they are a direct by-product of its strengths. While the band’s ’60s fixation results in some shimmering musical textures, it has left too many of the songs lyrically weak, too often a mix of vague cliches and undeveloped images that lead nowhere.
There is a fine line between simplicity and simple. Simplicity implies a depth of emotion presented in a straightforward fashion, lacking any pretension, while the simple lacks that depth and slides too easily into cliché. “Astral Man”, which swirls with musical energy, is held back by a formulaic mysticism — “I’ve got to wake up on this Earth / Back where I was before my birth / I’m going round and round again until I learn / I’m an astral man” — that plagues too many of the songs on the disc.
On the other hand, the lyrics to “I Believe” have an almost Zen-like austerity, a simplicity that somehow augments their power. “I believe in something”, Rick Reil sings, “Yeah, there is no doubt / Though my mind’s resisting / I’m gonna find out / If I could only find a bridge to a world outside me now / If I could only find a bridge / Then I’d get back somehow”. The song is ecstatic, fervent, Rick Reil driving it with a “Drive My Car”-like riff, repeating it, the percussion (hand claps, etc.) and vox organ pushing the rhythm, Pinelli’s mid-song solo slicing though it all. It’s a song that can make you believe in the project that the Grip Weeds have set for themselves, a project of positivity straight from another time.