A Drink and a Quick Decision
eing a straight-up pop band like Grand National is a tricky business these days. With all the subgenre and the sub-subgenre tags, all the hype and counterhype and anti-counterhype flying around like so much confetti, well, it's getting awfully tough to actually celebrate. 2004's Kicking the National Habit gave us a great start, with almost supernaturally catchy tunes and cozy beats that worked on speakers as well as dancefloors. And A Drink And A Quick Decision is a pill every bit as sweet as its predecessor, mining similar terrain to achieve equally sexy results. Available for download now and hitting retail shops in the early fall (no doubt overloaded with extras, as the US release of their first album was), it should win Grand National the audience befitting their populist sound.
If anything characterizes the group, it's a willingness to craft lean, elegant songs that absorb their influences, rather than flaunt them. So what would those influences be? There's a definite connection with the buoyant melodic line of British rock-grounded pop bands: the Beatles, the Kinks, Blur. There's a frosty coating of mid-period new wave slickness and production values, and a foundation of tasteful dance-grounded beats (think Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, New Order). Those mistaking obnoxiousness or tunelessness for stylistic innovation will be quick to describe Grand National as "derivative," but they're merely the odd batch of traditionalists in the ideological war zone that is independent rock, where sounding like an old Coil b-side is somehow more progressive than writing a solid pop tune. If nothing here offends, well, maybe we should ask ourselves exactly when and how offending became such a virtue.
While their music aims for clean, soaring melodies and bouncy backdrops, their lyrics and Lawrence "La" Rudd's charming, restrained delivery evokes something more tacitly personal. It’s something made of incidentals, emphatic yet vague emotions realized with 2 A.M.'s drunken clarity. A Drink And A Quick Discussion scans like an album-long dialogue between Rudd and some unknown paramour, and begins with the former making an impossible demand: "Even when you breathe / Say something." There's a lot here to live up to, and things tend to fall apart. How this makes for such a perfect soundtrack for someone in love, I'm not quite sure—unless it has something to do with the relentless push of the music towards the heavens even as Rudd surveys the terrain ahead for landmines. The troubled relationship that grows more fraught and bitter throughout the album ("you do a sweet impersonation of a girlfriend," ouch) seems to have unraveled by the wistful farewell of the final song couplet. "Part of a Corner," in particular, barely moves, instead twinkling like cotton-soft lights in the distant haze. It's reminiscent of those slightly bruised but somehow more clear-headed days in the aftermath of a love affair, when one is suffused with a longing that brings both twinges of pain and a strange, graceful beauty.
What really sets Grand National apart and allows them to navigate these tender zones with impunity, however, is their ability to pull all kinds of textural rabbits out of stylistic hats without ever sounding like they're genre-hopping. The choppy acoustic guitar and electrical static backdrop of "Tongue," the house kickdrum and lightly-flanged Cure-esque lead of "Close Approximation," the pastoral dreaminess of "Weird Ideas at Work," the wicked ska-not-ska of "Going to Switch the Light On," all these somehow make for perfect settings for the songwriting team of Rudd and partner Rupert Lyddon. And when their collaboration exceeds the merely excellent, it produces truly sublime fruit—first single "By the Time I Get Home...," the moody-yet-epic "Animal Sounds," and "Joker and Clown," which unashamedly stakes a claim on being one of 2007's best ballads, with a stark acoustic guitar strummed against a smart pair of rhythmic backdrops. Within that alternation lies the simple secret to Grand National's limber popcraft: it's nothing more than another update on the classic one-two of euphoria and melancholy. When was that ever a bad thing?