Being labeled a “great bar band” is a double-edged sword. It’s a music critic’s way of praising a band and marginalizing them at the same time. The subtext of this over-used phrase is, “this band plays good, loud, infectious rock that will go down well with your PBR on a Saturday night in a small club, but don’t expect them to rise to popularity or artistic heights of Radiohead or Wilco or R.E.M. or any other band that can sell out stadiums and two-tiered auditoriums at $40 a ticket (+ handling fees).”
Nowadays just playing good rock music isn’t enough to get a band noticed. Critics are always looking for the next big thing… the next Strokes… the new White Stripes… something different… something challenging… something else. So a band had better get to reinventing the wheel if they want to become critical darlings.
Well, I’m no critic. I’m a fan. A fan of rock and roll. That said, Austin-based Grand Champeen is a great bar band, a stone cold fact that nary a critic fails to mention when writing about the band (along with the obligatory comparison to the Replacements and “early” Soul Asylum). Perhaps weary of these constant (backhanded) complements is what drove Grand Champeen to venture into new territory on the band’s excellent new album Dial T For This (review).
On the other hand, the addition of strings, horns and piano to the band’s core sound may simply be a natural evolution for a group that’s been together since 1990. After all, anyone who was really listening to Grand Champeen’s music (in a bar or on disc) couldn’t help but notice that while the band was wearing it’s 1980s Minneapolis influence on one sleeve, the other sleeve proudly displayed the band’s power pop influences – notably Big Star and Cheap Trick. Even the fastest, loudest and punkest of the Grand Champeen’s songs (i.e., “Nothin’ On Me” from 2001’s Battle Cry For Help) contain infectious hooks and choruses that should have you singing (or screaming) along.
And on 2003’s The One That Brought You, the group hinted at a softer side with the ballad “Step Inside My Heart” (although they often seemed embarrassed to play it in a live setting, lest they cause some poor soul to cry in his PBR). So, Dial T For This is not as much a major departure for the band as it is a change of emphasis. The songs flow easily into one another and the 13 tracks on the disc go by so quickly and enjoyably that you will find yourself hitting the repeat button at the end.
The result is certainly the band’s most accomplished and immediately accessible album. And if Grand Champeen hasn’t exactly reinvented the wheel with Dial T For This, they’ve definitely added a few new spokes. Yes, in a live setting Champeen remains a “great bar band.” Just check out the footage from their recent performance at The Hideout in Chicago for the proof.
Grand Champeen Live at the Hideout – Part One
Grand Champeen Live at the Hideout – Part Two
Grand Champeen Live at the Hideout – Part Three