Singer Patience Hodgson seems to spend as much time in the air as on the stage. It's a good image for the enthusiasm and energy of her band.
In an inordinate percentage of all press and concert photos, Patience Hodgson, undeniably charismatic front-woman for the Grates, is caught -- frozen, exuberant -- in midair. It's a pretty good image for a band that manages to distill this much energy and fun from simple, familiar punk and garage rock formulas.
I first encountered the Grates, and the peculiar phenomenon of Hodgson's ability to spend so little of her performance with both feet on the stage without ever losing her breath or ability to shout, wail, and bark her lyrics as needed, when they opened for the Go! Team last fall at New York City's Webster Hall. An export of Brisbane, Australia, via their first widely-released EP The Ouch. The Touch., the Grates actually managed to match the energy of their touring partners, which, as any who have been to a Go! Team show (complete with dual drummers and a cheerleading troupe) know, is no mean feat. Certainly the now-forgotten second opener wasn't able to pull off anything of the sort. While the whole band, which also includes drummer Alana Skyring and guitarist John Patterson, performed with admirable luster and charm, it was clearly Hodgson's show. I remember remarking to my concert-date that with her raw energy and already magnetic stage presence she was "like Karen O's adorable younger sister," a comparison that, with the hindsight of interceding reviews, is as obvious and cliché as it is apt.
Now, Hodgson, Skyring, and Patterson are bringing their debut album Gravity Won't Get You High, out since April in Australia, to the western hemisphere at last. Though I recoil from the term, the Grates have been described as "pop punk." If that is an accurate description, then they are pop punk in the opposite manner from their contemporaries. While most music with this label is actually punk sterilized and polished for mainstream audiences, the Grates' music is pop made freshly raw and dirty. In fact, Karen O.'s Yeah Yeah Yeahs (pre-Show Your Bones polish) serve as a decent reference point for the Grates' simple, energized songwriting and guitar/drums/vocals three-piece arrangements. On the other hand, the Grates seem to be completely unassuming, aiming more to have fun than to impress anyone in particular, and frequently allow themselves to dip deeper into their bag of pop hooks to good effect.
The results are an infectious variety, from the culminating electric crunch and oddly unpredictable structure of "Lies are Much More Fun" to the handclap breakdown of "Science is Golden", from the surprising three-part harmony of "Inside Outside" to the banjo and twang of "Sukkafish". At times, there's a sense of catchy frivolity to the proceedings, but it can easily be forgiven. See the early Australian hit "Trampoline", where Hodgson speaks/shouts over syncopated guitar squeal, giving us lyrics like "Use your bed like a trampoline / I said higher, higher / Just for love if you know what I mean / I said higher, higher." Not the most complicated of sentiments, but they get the job done while oozing a certain appeal. Even the parental warning label on the front of the jewel case is cute, indicating the presence of "moderate impact coarse language" on a fluffy white cloud firing lightning.
Occasionally, and perhaps inevitably given the sense of spontaneity that permeates the album, there are missteps. The horn arrangement near the end of "Lies are Much More Fun", otherwise an excellent pop song, sounds awfully close to '90s ska, an association that anyone in the vicinity of a pop punk trajectory would do well to avoid at this point. Patterson's backing vocals on "Feels like Pain", on the other hand, sound jarringly like something out of the early grunge era, completely out of place against the rest of the disc. The flip side of any charming lack of polish is, of course, a lack of polish where it could actually be an improvement. And ultimately, nothing here can match the sheer fervor of "Message", the blistering opening track from The Ouch. The Touch.
These are minor qualms, however, and any other complaints I could make are easily overpowered by the sheer excitement of hearing such unbridled enthusiasm in an emerging talent. And they are talented. Enthusiasm alone, or talent alone, will only take you so far, but Skyring's pounding percussion, Patterson's guitar licks, bouncing whenever they're not crushing, and Hodgson's charisma and sudden vocal gear-shifting give the Grates a solid foundation from which they leap headlong into their songs. Best of all, I get the feeling that Gravity Won't Get You High, for all its commendable traits, is still a ways from the best of which they are capable. Lead-off single "19 20 20" is a compelling, buzzing pop confection, complete with an unstoppable (and this time ska-baggage-free) horn build. But there's still a sense that it could be tightened and elaborated upon, that the lyrics could cut a little deeper. And that room for growth in what is already a very promising band suggests that the Grates deserve both to be enjoyed now and closely watched in the coming years.