Editor’s note: Grace Potter appears Friday, Aug. 12, at the Crystal Bay Casino’s Crown Room. Almost 100 tickets remained on sale this morning for $35. Con Brio opens at 8:30 p.m., and the Nightowls play the Red Room after-party.
Grace Potter has been the frontwoman for the Nocturals, one of the most solid rock groups of the past 10 years, impressing fans and critics alike with her vivacious pipes, engaging songwriting and strutting stage presence. For her first solo album, “Midnight,” she took all of her talents to LA producer Eric Valentine (Nickel Creek, Good Charlotte and Queens of the Stone Age) and repackaged them into a shiny pop album that will leave most people doing a double take, for one reason or another.
“Midnight” debuted at No. 4 on Billboard’s Top Rock Albums chart this week.
Potter has always been the focal point of the Nocturnals’ soulful rock as its lead singer and songwriter, and the band has come to be defined by her. Dazzling bandleaders such as Potter always seem to branch out at some point from their roots and distinguish themselves as a solo performer, not confined by the sound and expectations of their previous occupations. Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, Jim James and others all have been a dealt similar hand and have come out on the other side with varying degrees of success. So how does Grace Potter fare walking the road alone?
Listening to “Midnight,” it is clear her success is defined by expectations of the listeners. On one hand, this is a no holds-barred pop record that sizzles with energy. It feels as if Potter has stepped out from the humble woods and into the late-night bustle of the big city, with a willingness to bask in the bright lights for a while. Bombastic lead single “Alive Tonight” rocks with glitzy charisma, Potter’s honeyed voice exploding over the chorus. The song falls right in line with the vibe of Florence and the Machine and across the album Potter injects some of pop music’s biggest hitmakers into her songs. “Your Girl” grooves like prime Prince, “Delirious” is like Donna Summers with a shot of whiskey and “Instigators” has the brawny zeal of the Foo Fighters.
For pop fans getting their first dose of Potter, this album should be an exhilarating introduction to one of the best voices in rock and, now, pop. Whatever type of music you put in front of her, from country to rock to pop, Potter manages to make it almost secondary compared to her soulful wail. That is her biggest and best musical instrument and it shines all over “Midnight,” especially on the big-folk stomp of “Empty Heart,” which Potter commands with a sultry delivery that is deliciously catchy and grows in passion as the song climaxes in the choral ending. The record’s production is obviously steered toward appealing to a larger portion of the population and the undeniable musicality of Potter’s voice is definitely something that will draw new people to this work.
However, for a lot of people, “Midnight” is going to signal a huge departure from her rock and roll roots. Synths, crystalline hooks, significant track layering and electronic razzle-dazzle occupy the space usually reserved for the Nocturnals’ classic sound. In that environment, the warmth and subtlety of Potter’s music is crushed under the weight of heavily processed tracks. What makes a good pop record is exactly what hinders a good rock record, which is what fans have expected from Potter over her last five albums with the Nocturnals.
Potter’s songwriting also dips its toe in the shallows more so than the deep. The veiled storytelling of rockers such as “Ah Mary” on 2007’s “This Is Somewhere” is replaced by watered-down messages of good times (“Alive Tonight”), sizzling chemistry (“Hot To The Touch”) and chasing heartache (“Biggest Fan”). It leaves the record lacking a substantial amount of emotional weight and ensures this album of not having any real staying power or musical relevance after a handful of years.
One track that old fans should feel somewhat encouraged by is “Nobody’s Born With a Broken Heart.” Potter’s stories of broken people soar over the emotional swell of piano, guitars and her surging voice. The track has an emotional slickness to it, like many U2 albums, but is rooted in something more sustainable than the rest of “Midnight,” both musically and lyrically. It is the biggest nod to her time with the Nocturnals and is the most compelling song to listen to on the album.
“Midnight” will be a very divisive record for fans of Potter. Some will see it as too sleek, loud and poppy and others will cite those same characteristics as their reasons for liking the album. It should be indicative to everyone though that Potter is in control of her artistry and will travel where her muse takes her. She is as assertive and passionate on this record as she has been on any album with the Nocturnals, and ultimately that is what people should admire most about Potter. She’ll do what she wants, how she wants to do it. All we can do is take notice from the audience.
Related story: Review of Grace Potter and the Nocturnals 2013 show at Crystal Bay. LINK
- Grace Potter
Release: Aug. 14, 2015
Notable Tracks: “Empty Heart,” “Nobody’s Born With a Broken Heart,” “Alive Tonight”