On their respective new albums, Grace Potter and Kelly Hogan offer a combined soundtrack for a full summer's day.
Potter's The Lion the Beast the Beat, despite being co-billed to her band The Nocturnals, is the daytime record — a youthful blast of anthemic pop and rock that approximates a slightly less throat-grabbing version of Heart in its heyday. Hogan's I Like to Keep Myself in Pain, which sounds scholarly in comparison, is full of torchy laments that often recall longtime performance mate Neko Case. It's more of a solitary, late-night companion.
"Gas up the easy rider and head out to Nevada," belts Potter at the onset of the album-opening title track. "Somebody let the beast out, baby." It presents an appealing call-to-arms as the meditative war chant of an intro gives way to arena-friendly rock and soul. It also largely defines the mood of the record's 11 songs. This is a sleek, commercial effort, but one that is nowhere near as claustrophobic sounding as Potter's past three studio works, none of which packs the bravado of her live shows. The Lion doesn't either, but it sounds much more at home in its recorded surroundings, from the expansive and thoroughly modern pop of Never Go Back, one of three tunes co-produced by The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, to the dance-floor appeal of Keepsake to the contemporary soul lament of Timekeeper. As such, there is more beat than beast in The Lion, which all but guarantees itself a place in the summer sun.
Hogan's I Like to Keep Myself in Pain is more worldly and more world-weary. It gathers songs by Vic Chesnutt, Robbie Fulks, Jon Langford, M. Ward, Andrew Bird and Robyn Hitchcock and makes them all sound — thanks to a singing voice that is effortlessly expressive in intent and crystalline in tone — like classics from the Great American Songbook.
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But the musical backdrops are just as exquisite. Hogan receives back-up from legendary pop-soul keyboardist Booker T. Jones, guitarist Scott Ligon of the new NRBQ and bassist Gabriel Roth of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. Understandably, such company provides Pain with a touch of late-night soul typified by Margaret Ann Rich's sumptuous Pass on By. But the record also turns briefly but proudly sunny during John Wesley Harding's Motown-tinged Sleeper Awake.
The defining song, however, is Bird's We Can't Have Nice Things, with lyrics by Jack Pendarvis. It places Hogan's clear, cool vocal command within a world of whiskey stains and cigarette burns — a domestic purgatory where she is an empowered but seemingly reluctant queen.