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CD Review: Grand National – Kicking The National Habit

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Grand National are the latest UK export looking to make a dent in the well-populated radio scene of the States, offering the re-released and expanded version of their debut album Kicking The National Habit. The album is a jangly, laid-back brand of college alt-pop, not dissimilar in sound to a less excitable Gorillaz, run through the filter of New York hipster rock meets The Police. Confused? You shouldn’t be. It’s the kind of music that upon hearing it, you’d swear you’ve heard several times before, but you’re just not sure where (or when). It’s kind of like Levi’s jeans, because of its pedigree, it’s not going out of style any time soon. Neither is it horribly revolutionary, it’s just comfortable.

The band is made up of longtime friends and current Londoners: Rupert Lyddon and Lawrence Rudd. The duo handles a surprising range of duties in the group, from writing and performing, to producing and arranging. Because of this controlled involvement, it’s easy to assume that their sound hasn’t been pre-filtered down by disinterested third parties. It has a raw edge that feels fully genuine.

The disc opens up with “Drink To Moving On,” which is the kind of breezy beach rock that you’d hope to find at a frat party, where the drink portions are generous and served repeatedly. It invites you to both relax and cut loose. Every now and then, and especially with this song, you sense a slight reggae influence; more of a distant, smoky influence than a direct style comparison. It respects the Police, but finds camaraderie with Blur.

“Talk Amongst Yourselves” follows, which many may recognize in its mutated form on Sasha’s grandiose Involver album. The first thing you notice is that the song is distinctly intact in both forms, partly because the group tends to use a very succinct song structure, sometimes often just one verse and chorus, then repeat. Sasha’s remix also reveals a kink in the armor of Grand National. Where Sasha’s work is a large expansive reworking of the song, the band’s original is a much simpler affair where a standard three-piece band sound is augmented slightly with a retro synth lead. And to be honest… Sasha’s version instantly impresses with its depth, whereas the Nationals simply entertain with their simplicity. It’s a thread that runs through the entire album: they have quite an enjoyably groove, but it sounds somewhat lazy, as if they’ve already been partying pretty hard for a few hours and then are expected to play some songs.

Another issue is that the album proper (the first 10 of 17 tracks on the US release) is weighted heavily in terms of quality towards the front half. The next track, and also the lead single, is “Playing In The Distance,” an utterly catchy groove-fest that you can’t help but enjoy. It rounds out the first few tracks with a great style that unfortunately doesn’t last through to the album’s end.

“Peanut Dreams” rounds out the first half with a nice late-night bass groove, before slamming us underneath harsh fluorescent lights with the jolting (and slightly annoying) “Cherry Tree,” with its shrill, sing-songy background vocals totally out of step with the rest of the record. They’re immediately redeemed with the excellent “Coming Round,” which summons the vibe established earlier, but then it sort of trails off with the remaining principal ten tracks. Overall, the album proper is an enjoyable mix of songs, frequently addictive and catchy, but just as often shy of capturing any energy.

The US release includes generous bonus material as well, which is a great opportunity to explore some of the band’s non-album material. Four b-sides (I’m presuming) follow, and, although not necessarily ready for mainstream radio play, demonstrate some nice song exploration. The track “Strange Magnificant Noise” especially is a gem. Rounding out the release are three remixes, two of the single “Playing In The Distance” (a radio edit, and then a longer “proper” club mix), as well as Sasha’s reinterpretation of “Talk Amongst Yourselves.”

Overall, Grand National presents a strong debut, and the addition of generous bonus material for the US release rounds out a nice package. Any criticism comes from the fact that the group doesn’t fully meet the bar that they themselves established at the start of the record. The album is enjoyable and even some of the lesser tracks grow on you with repeated listens. I would be interested to see how they tackle a follow-up album. With some greater focus on song selection, this could be a serious band to look out for in the future.

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About David R Perry