Album Review: The Curious Case of Grace Potter

Share this post

There have been no shortage of telling moments during Grace Potter’s long transformation from grubby Vermont hippie to roots rock’s preeminent sex symbol. But here’s one: at the Hangout Festival in 2010, she and the Nocturnals took the stage on a blistering Friday afternoon. They were about to release their third, eponymously titled record, and some image-making had clearly been going on. Gone was the dirty blonde hair and devil-may-care clothes in favor of long highlighted locks and a silky dress that left very little to the imagination. As for the men in the band, they emerged to play their set on the beach in matching shirts and blazers. And when drummer Matt Burr finally ditched his halfway through the set, Potter admonished him that he was going to get fined for his sartorial insouciance, presumably by their manager.

This calculated grasp at broader, mainstream appeal has been going on for the better part of two years now, during which time she’s appeared on VH1’s “Divas Salute the Troops” and released a duet with Kenny Chesney. This summer, she’s going on tour with Chesney and Tim McGraw.

In the past, she’s defended how she markets herself, saying if people look at her legs first and only then notice the music, that’s fine with her. And she told Relix magazine in 2010, “I don’t want a flop and I don’t want to go back to making sandwiches … so anything better than that is fantastic.”

Grace Potter in 2008   vs. Grace Potter in 2012

While that does make her refreshingly honest and self-actualized, it isn’t exactly benefiting her artistic output.

Their new release, The Lion, The Beast, The Beat, sees more of the top-shelf production we heard on the uneven Grace Potter & the Nocturnals. It also sees the band further trading their rock/soul/jam format for an all-things-to-all-people approach. (For a reference point, see country-jam hybrid Zac Brown Band, who routinely offer up some truly creative musical moments, but insist upon serving them up alongside some trite, Jimmy Buffett–style party singalongs, just to keep the Nashville machine happy.)

The disc opens with tons of promise, as the title track morphs from a slow, psychedelic tom beat into a 70s-style open road rocker with a groove that would make ZZ Top proud. It’s the style she’s made her name with, and she returns to it with exceptional results on the tremolo-heavy slow burn of “The Divide.” Then the band branches out a bit on “Never Go Back” and “Loneliest Soul,” the two tracks on which she collaborated with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach. While they showcase Potter’s exceptional vocal power, they sound … just like Dan Auerbach songs, complete with soul stylings, laid-back danceable grooves and hooks to spare.

Undoubtedly influenced by Auerbach (which, it must be said, has become a thing in 2012) the band leans heavily on slick dance beats elsewhere, and however retro they may sound (the fuzz guitar backed by a four-on-the-floor beat of “Turntable,” or “Roulette’s” Stevie Nicks-style synth rock) they’re still dance grooves–unexpected at the least for a band that’s opened for the likes of Levon Helm and Gov’t Mule.

Then there are the nods to Nashville. “One Heart Missing,” despite the bombast, could pass as a Miranda Lambert song, right down to the clunky lyrical imagery. “Stars” is tailor made for Dixie Chicks fans to wave their lighters to on the summer tour. Regrettably, “Ragged Company,” her duet with Willie Nelson, comes off much the same; her truly impressive vocal performance can not quite redeem this ballad by the numbers.

If Potter and her cohorts merely wanted to augment their polished brand of roots rock with some funk and soul flourishes, this disc would work a lot better. What knocks it off the rails is their seemingly market-driven need to fuse it with lowest-common-denominator demands of stadium crowds.

The result is a divide-and-conquer approach, as if the band is trying simultaneously to merit airtime on three different radio station formats. And while it may make for a successful (and novel) business strategy, to say nothing of some fine building blocks for iTunes playlists, it doesn’t make for a cohesive listen.

There’s a lot to love about Potter. But she wants to be loved by everyone. And that’s the problem.

Leave a comment!