This Is Somewhere (Ragged Company/ Hollywood Records) marks the coming of age of the young, Vermont-based rock band Grace Potter and the Nocturnals. To say that this album makes good on the band's immense promise would be an understatement. While these assertions quite naturally invite skepticism, we respond: "just insert and press 'play'."
The album manifests incredible growth in the writing and singing of 24-year-old phenomenon Grace Potter, who has clearly found her true voice in both respects, as well as the instrumental prowess of the band: Potter on the Hammond B3, guitarist Scott Tournet, bassist Bryan Dondero and drummer Matt Burr. On this remarkable record, they make a glorious racket indeed.
The band's timeless, organic brand of American rock & roll is fully in evidence throughout This Is Somewhere, starting with "Ah Mary," with its languid verses exploding into arena-scaled choruses in what is clearly a call to action. This heart-pumping rocker sets the stage for a dynamic song cycle that encompasses "Stop the Bus," a churning anthem that recalls Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers circa Damn the Torpedoes, the love-as-war lament "Apologies," the paean to a battered New Orleans "Ain't No Time," the soulful, horn-accented "Mastermind" and the concluding stunner "Big White Gate." Potter's timely and eloquent songs-some of them intensely personal, others politically charged-immediately lodge themselves in the listener's head (pretty much defining the de rigueur term "sticky") and bore in deeper with each successive play.
"I wanted to challenge my own creative potential," Potter says of the impulse that fueled her explosion of creativity. "Until this point, I'd never written a political song. Although I was an activist all through college - I marched on Washington, got arrested-I never felt the need to put it into a song. I wasn't angry enough.but that changed, obviously. I began to feel that the time was right, and out came 'Ah Mary'-Mary sure does have her issues."
This band has something else going for it - Potter's innate star quality. As critic Jeff Davidson wrote last September in a piece posted on TMZ.com, ".she is easily the most glamorous star to rise from the jam scene, and her million-dollar smile makes her as desirable as any pop songstress. The fact that she's amazingly talented.makes her even sexier."
A brief history lesson: The band-now based in Waitsfield on some acreage owned by Grace's parents that the locals affectionately refer to as "Potterville"-was formed in 2002 by Potter and Burr while attending St. Lawrence University in upstate New York. After Tournet joined them, the nascent unit recorded its homemade debut album, Original Soul, in 2004, with Dondero completing the lineup just weeks before they banged out their second album, the self-produced Nothing but the Water, in a 19th century haybarn-turned theater on the campus of Goddard College in Plainfield, Vt. The album was well-received by the press: No Depression's Jeff Vrabel praised it for the frontwoman's "youthful, windows-down abandon," while Rolling Stone's David Fricke intoned that Potter "is poised for bigger things."
"It was our intention to make an album that sounded like it was made in 1973, and we did it," says Tournet. "We wanted to make a record that was intelligent, cohesive and accessible, like the records we love." Burr added, "We were dreaming of albums like Neil Young's Harvest and the Stones' Exile on Main Street, where they went into a comfortable environment with natural reverb that wasn't necessarily built as a studio. That's where we were coming from, and we're pretty psyched with the final product. It definitely captured the warmth and vibe we wanted."
Potter and the Nocturnals grew from the roots of rock & roll in what some might call the old-fashioned way; For the first two years, Potter and the band teamed up with friends to run their "Ragged Company" label from her dad's old sign shop, handling everything from CD graphics to booking the tours. In 2005 they joined forces with indie911 founder Justin Goldberg after reading his music industry book suggesting new artists should tour instead of look for record deals. The group turned down their first label offer and chose instead to sign on with booking agent Hank Sacks, now with Monterey Peninsula Artists, and began playing a countless number of music festivals and opening slots until gradually building great word of mouth. Their sound? They're a neoclassic rock & roll band possessing bona fide chops, a natural sense of dynamics and a palate containing all the useful colors, and these qualities allow them to stretch out onstage, to riveting effect. Perhaps their greatest asset is the ability to transcend genres, never content to settle into one predefined sound. GPN were once the up-and-coming darlings of the modern jazz and blues scene, receiving incessant comparisons to Norah Jones and Lucinda Williams. Yet their magnetic live shows and dedication to the road earned the band a warm welcoming from the jam-band community, leading to two nominations at the 2006 Jammy's. At the same time, This is Somewhere is a testament to the band's true roots - pure rock music. The influence of predecessors The Band, The Rolling Stones, and Little Feat is clear. Still, GPN's raw passion and uncompromising politics more directly evoke the memory of the great Neil Young & Crazy Horse, whose Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere served as one of the inspirations for the album title.
Following those two years of virtually nonstop roadwork on a national scale sharing the stages with such legends as Taj Mahal and Mavis Staples, including a bravura performance at last year's Bonnaroo Music Festival ("Touring is a big part of who we are," says Grace), the band has upped the ante considerably on the aptly titled This Is Somewhere. The sessions were conducted in a Los Angeles studio with song-centric producer Mike Daly, who has forged a booming career for himself after coming on the radar as Whiskeytown's resident multi-instrumentalist; A-list engineer Joe Chicarelli, who joined the project between his co-production of the Shins' Wincing the Night Away and setting up a Nashville studio for the White Stripes album project; and mix master Michael Brauer, whose credits span from Coldplay's Parachutes to My Morning Jacket's Acoustic Citousca.
"We didn't know how good we could be until Mike came in and stepped it up with his song ability, his sense of elasticity and his feel for performance," Grace says of Daly's crucial contribution.
The project began last May with the recording of some demos in the band's Potterville rehearsal space. Two months later, they made use of a three-day window on their tour schedule to record three songs with Daly in order to ascertain whether the chemistry was there, and the results were undeniable. In October, Daly spent a week in Potterville going through the material. They hooked up each song, so to speak, to what Grace calls a "song-quality meter" and by the time Daly left the compound, they'd whittled down the list of candidates to 18.
The real work started a month later when the band headed out to L.A., where Potter re-wrote lyrics and choruses, added bridges and slashed entire sections. "It was an emotional couple of weeks," says Potter. "In the past, I've written a song and immediately added it to our repertoire without looking back...but this time around, I really dug back into the guts of these songs to try and bring the gold to the surface. I think I left a piece of my soul on the floor of that Oakwood apartment."
The band then holed up in a rehearsal space, hammering away at the new arrangements, focusing on finding a signature sound and a dynamic balance that felt just right. "I wrote the words and music, but the band and Mike had a big hand in how these songs turned out." They then repaired to the big room at Burbank's Glenwood Place Studios, where they were joined by Chicarelli, who tracked the album the old-fashioned way, using a vintage Neve console hooked up to a two-inch tape machine, while Daly had the band lay down the material live off the floor, with Potter playing her trusty B3 on some songs and strapping on a guitar for others. Later, she'd add her lead vocals, while Tournet would blast out his scorching solos, making for yet another high point.
Once they were in the studio, "Joe was all about sound, and Mike was all about performance," says Grace. "He wasn't looking for the perfect take; he was looking for the right take." The band responded to the challenge issued by their producer with performances that surprised even themselves. "What's cool about this record," says Tournet, "is the balance. The songs and Grace's vocals are the centerpiece, but the other stuff is really important too-the sonic structures, the architecture and the flow; the loud moments and the spacey moments. There was a lot of attention paid to the width and breadth of it."
Says Daly: "If the songs are right and you nail it at that level, everything else falls into place. Grace is a really talented writer, and I definitely threw down the gauntlet to her: 'Blow my mind-play me some ridiculously great songs.' And she came through. The whole band rose to the occasion. If you want to make a great record, the only way it gets there is to hold them to a higher standard, and the band pulled it off."
And just like that, this surprising and deeply resonant album lifts Potter and the Nocturnals into the rarefied stratum presently occupied by Wilco and My Morning Jacket-bands that combine a reverence for rock's rich heritage with a sense of adventure and a need to express something honest and heartfelt. We can't have too many of those, can we? Welcome to the club, kids.