July 18, 2006

New Grenada "Modern Problems"

Detroit denizens New Grenada were a highlight of last year's Happy Happy Birthday to Me Popfest in Athens, GA. During their set, they unleashed a maelstrom of nervous energy that had many audience members questioning their sanity. Singer/guitarist John Nelson ran around the standing area with a road cone over his head, climbing up walls and flipping over staircase railings without regard for his own safety. The band's raucous power-pop tunes were good enough to command the audience's attention even if the members had stood stock-still while playing them. Nelson's antics, though, infused the set with the kind of danger that most bands thrice as abrasive as his can't deliver on stage. Unfortunately, their last album Parting Shots didn't possess half of the power of their live show, as many of the songs were hampered by low fidelity and synthetic arrangements.

For this year's follow-up Modern Problems, New Granada rectified that mistake in a big way by recording in a professional studio with my favorite engineer, Steve Albini. Each of its 10 songs packs the kind of instrumental wallop that only Albini can supply: distorted bass, booming drums and scratchy guitars are now the band's weapons of choice, as opposed to dinky drum machines and cheap keyboards. However welcome the increase in production values might be, though, it ends up inadvertently spotlighting another major weakness: the band may be too democratic.

New Granada has three vocalists, only one of which actually SINGS. The even-numbered tracks on Modern Problems are fronted by Nelson, whereas the odd-numbered tracks are fronted by either bassist Nicole Allie or guitarist Shawn Knight. The Nelson-fronted tracks are superior, with strong vocal melodies, dramatic tempo shifts and pointed couplets that suggest he may have a Pinkerton inside of him waiting to come out. “I can't believe I wasted all this energy on you,” he sings to an indiscreet antagonist on “El Paso.” “Why did you tell them something I told you in confidence?” “Meat Is Murder Mobile” describes the awkwardness that arises when you're wary of socializing with someone, but doen't want him to know that you're avoiding him: “Our friendship is built on a shaky foundation/We can bring Nat along, but only on special occasions.” The cheeky “Borderline Cougar” disses a girlfriend who “might have mild ADD,” because “she doesn't pay enough attention to me!”

The songs that Nelson doesn't sing on aren't as bad as they are simply awkward. Although “Parting Shots” has a few funny barbs about vain people (“He waits in long lines just to show off his shoes”), Allie's brash, repetitive Sprechtstimme quickly grates. The other song she fronts, “You Said It,” is the kind of math-rock grind I would expect from...well, from an Albini band! Then, there's “Chumps,” which is almost totally ruined by Knight's parrot-like yelping. This rotation of vocal duties makes Modern Problems half a great album, which should not be said about any album that lasts only 24 minutes. Nonetheless, I am sure that even its lesser songs will kick butt live.

Artist Website: www.newgrenada.com
Label Website: www.contraphonic.com

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