The Graham Weekly Album Review #982

The Grapes: Private Stock -- by George Graham

(Intersound 9606 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 3/8/95)

It seems that 1970s Southern style rock is enjoying something of a creative, if not commercial, resurgence. The music was pioneered by the Allman Brothers band, and marked by hints of blues and submerged country influence, and a strong tendency to launch into extended electric guitar jams, usually with at least two co-lead guitars. Later groups like the Marshall Tucker Band, the Outlaws and Lynyrd Skynyrd took the basic style in different directions, but kept its basic elements. Though the Allman Brothers Band have been performing continuously, with a few breaks here and there, since the early 1970s, their style faded from the ranks of trendiness by the time of the early 1980s New Wave trend, with only Lynyrd Skynyrd's interminable Free Bird left as a monument. Meanwhile, during the 1980s, R.E.M. pioneered a whole new movement in Southern Rock.

In recent years, there has been a notable tendency among young bands trying to rebel against current trends to look to the music of the 1960s for inspiration. Now the 1970s are being targeted, and the Southern Rock of that decade is attracting younger rockers as a style to explore or adopt.

As mentioned, the Allman Brothers Band remains active in their current incarnation, and Lynyrd Skynyrd has also reformed and recorded an album last year. But ironically of the best music in the genre is now being made by some talented young groups, who seem to be picking the best of the style's ingredients while discarding some of Southern Rock's tendencies toward self-indulgence or musical sloppiness. The last year and a half has seen excellent national debut recordings by The Freddie Jones Band and the Hatters, along with the revised Aquarium Rescue Unit. Interestingly, both the Freddie Jones Band and the Hatters are based in the North -- Chicago and New York, respectively.

This week's album is the debut by a first-rate Atlanta-based quartet who also distill the best influences of classic Southern Rock and avoid the endless jams. This group also features more of the gruff-voiced vocal style of classic Southern Rock than other recent revivalists, while their musical approach will remind many of the Allman Brothers. The group call themselves The Grapes, and their CD is entitled Private Stock.

There is one difference between the Grapes and the archetypical Southern Rock group: The Grapes have only one guitarist. In place of the second or third guitar is a keyboard, often an acoustic piano, however it is played with a nod to Chuck Leavell of the Allman Brothers, including his tendency toward a bit of jazziness. The Grapes are Steven Fink, the keyboard man and one of the two principal songwriters; Charlie Lonsdorf, the bassist and other main composer in the group; guitarist Ted Norton and drummer Rick Welsh. Fink and Lonsdorf do most of the lead vocals. Norton definitely evokes the Allman's Dickie Betts in his style, a bright tone with lots of sustain, with very melodic lead lines. Though Fink's keyboards rarely take the limelight, what he plays is an important part of the band's sound though their textures, giving the group a sound that is more refined than traditional Southern Rock. The group's music often has the easy-going feel of the Allman Brothers' classic instrumental Jessica from the Eat a Peach album.

Private Stock is a self-contained recording with no added musicians, produced by John Keane, who is known for his work with groups of the R.E.M. generation of Southern Rock. The production is very tasteful, with the group's sound unfettered by excessive studio skulduggery or unnecessary instrumentation. One bit of cheating on the record is that guitarist Norton is heard on overdubbed parts on several of the tracks doing such things as lead guitar parts while also being heard on rhythm guitar. And while the Grapes level of musicianship might not be quite as impressive as that of fellow revivalists the Freddie Jones Band or the Aquarium Rescue Unit, Private Stock is an album that is very consistent, whose songs seem to reinforce each other, so that after listening to the whole album you come away even more taken by the group than you would from hearing just one or two songs.

The album begins with its best track. Been Gone Too Long starts with Fink's appealing piano before the song introduction leads to Norton's Dickie Betts influenced lead lines. <<>> The song features the group's trademark oblique lyrics, in this case co-written by one Romin Dawson, who wrote or co-wrote several of the album's songs with the Grapes. <<>>

Another Romin Dawson song is If You Got a Gun, whose arrangement is also steeped in 1970s Southern Rock. <<>>

A slower song also in the same tradition is Somewhere New, by bassist Charlie Lonsdorf. Here guitarist Ted Norton does some overdubbing, playing acoustic rhythm guitar, while the lyrics tell the classic story of a rambling man. <<>>

Another of the album's best songs is Salvation by pianist Steven Fink. The lyrics are interesting, but again rather vague and subject to various interpretations, including theological. The band's performance of the tune sounds "just right" in almost every respect. <<>>

With a bit of a harder edge is a piece called New Song. With Norton playing two fuzzy lead guitars, it starts to sound more like groups like Lynyrd Skynyrd. <<>>

Less memorable is Jozetta written by Fink. Here, the song has the Southern Rock sound to be point of being rather predictable. <<>>

Another highlight of the album is Mama Flew, which presumably is a eulogy to the songwriter Romin Dawson's mother. With the acoustic guitars and piano, nice lead guitar work and melodic writing, the track shows the Grapes in fine form. <<>>

The album ends with another of those tracks reminiscent of the flowing, bouncy quality of the Allman Brothers Jessica. The Grapes tune is called Above the Moon, written by bassist Lonsdorf. <<>> The piece has the closest thing on the album to a Southern Rock guitar jam in a short section just as the track is fading out. <<>>

Private Stock the new debut album by the Atlanta-based quartet The Grapes, shows that 1970s style Southern Rock is alive and well in the hands of younger bands who are drawing on the best aspects of the style and adding their own creative input. Of the several such bands who have released albums recently, the Grapes hold closest to the tradition of the Allman Brothers and Marshall Tucker Bands, though they do it with only one guitar in their group. Guitarist Ted Norton does cheat on the album and overdub some multiple parts, but keyboardist Steven Fink is also an important part of the group's sound, just as Chuck Leavell added much to the Allman Brothers Band. The group's songs are worthwhile, their musicianship is first-rate and their arrangements quite tasteful. Never on the album do The Grapes go into one of those tedious guitar jams that were the bane of this style.

This album's technical quality is quite good, with the sound being clean and bright, the acoustic piano and acoustic guitars adding a nice sparkle to the sound, and the drums sounding like real drums. There is also relatively less compression than the usual for rock albums.

If you were ever a fan of the classic Allman Brothers, and still have a soft spot for the style of music, then The Grapes' Private Stock makes for enjoyable listening. The album also shows how an old sound can become fresh again, especially in the context of 1990s commercial rock.

This is George Graham.

(c) Copyright 1995 George D. Graham
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