I’m fairly sure that, after ten years of doing this, Grand Champeen has got to be getting tired of all the Soul Asylum/Superchunk/Wilco comparisons that they’ve been subjected to. Dial T For This, Grand Champeen’s fourth album, finally shows the band making strides to develop their own personality while still rubbing shoulders with the aforementioned influences.
The three years since The One That Brought You have found the Champs buckling down on their musicianship, incorporating piano, horns, and strings into the mix. They seem to understand that additional instruments don’t necessarily mean proficiency is afoot. To address the cynicism that Pro Tools has created, the liner notes make a point to declare that the music was “performed by someone in the band on an actual instrument, not a computer.” Honorable for sure, but it’s a little disheartening that we live in an age where public notices are needed to make believers out of the rock and roll faithful. I don’t remember my copy of No Pocky For Kitty or Hang Time coming with those declarations.
Come to think of it, I don’t remember The One That Brought You having that announcement either.
Here’s the thing: having traveled through the same records that Grand Champeen revisits, I remember the sense of disappointment when those bands started to feel the pressure and/or obligation to change their style. They do this for a number of reasons, but primarily it’s either to keep their own sanity or it’s for the sake of demonstrating progression. Whatever the explanation, it usually results in those efforts not being name-checked as “must-have.”
The exception to this may be Wilco, a band that G.C. is more indebted to than ever. It wasn’t until that band started to move away from the alt-country blueprint that we really got to see how good they were. The motivation for this, avoiding creative stagnation and typecasting, may be the same reason that Grand Champeen has decided to expand its own sound. The reality is that this Austin quartet hasn’t demonstrated enough emotional inspiration to warrant the additional arrangements. Their previous releases may have been a little derivative for sure, but at least they were focused and they were executed with passion: a declaration of love to their coming of age soundtracks.
So if we’re using Wilco as a blueprint, then Dial T For This is Grand Champeen’s Being There, which means that they’re going to have to get their emotional house in order for a solid floorplan of Summerteeth on the next release.
As it stands, one of the best moments on Dial T, “To The Ides,” carries the same lineage prevalent on their prior releases and benefits from added attention to detail. It’s straight from the Soul Asylum playbook, but with a destroying solo that would have Dave Pirner throwing up the devil horns.
“Gonna Be The Death Of Me” and “Raul Vela” (mp3) incorporate some of the band’s own increased expectations and manage to hint at the creatively progressive album they set out to make. The former holds back the dynamics, letting a piano take center stage before the introduction of a perfectly placed steel guitar enters to distract the listener from an unexpected, and wonderful, brass ending.
“Raul Vela” (the namesake is, in fact, two members of San Antonio’s The Remainders) is the album’s highlight. While the rest of the album occasionally feels like G.C. added instrumentation because they had to; “Raul Vela” added the instrumentation because it needed it in order for the song to work. The restraint throughout the song gives the Neil Young-fueled guitar solo some added emotion and it shows how great this band could be if they’d just stop thinking so hard.
Dial T seems to be an album born out of the frustrations of watching other performers on the road and admiring their technical abilities. If so, their perceptions of themselves couldn’t be more wrong. Were the Replacements ever admired for their musical proficiency? Of course not. What they’re remembered for is the one thing that Grand Champeen neglected to focus on when setting out to challenge themselves: the themes that make you want to reach for that steel guitar, piano, or hell, just start a rock band to begin with. If what you’ve written is convincing, then we’ll believe you nailed every note played.
While they may have indeed created and hit every note on Dial T For This, Grand Champeen’s “must-have” might be the albums on which they didn’t.