Tommy Grasley, who sent me a copy of this album for review, seems like he's a nice guy. He's bubbly and charming and full of life, an impression backed up by the quirky lyrical content and the broad smile that decorates his face in every photo I can find of him (except, ironically, the one on the cover). It looks like there was plenty of darkness in his past but he's survived and moved forward and his vibrancy is engraved in every virtual groove on this album. Quite frankly, it's infectious.
Now, I'm here to review an album rather than a person but the two seem to be intrinsically linked. This feels good in large part because Grasley clearly felt good when he recorded it. Certainly its character is his character and its identity is his identity. He doesn't have the widest range and he wisely doesn't try anything flash, beyond a neat metal scream on the heaviest song, Jct 66. He just sings (well sings and writes and produces, but doesn't play any of the instruments) in his own characterful style.
I love voices that revel in sounding different and Grasley's certainly fits that bill. In some ways, his voice reminded me of Robin George's guitar, in that neither really does anything out of the ordinary but somehow finds its own groove to become instantly recognisable. I haven't heard Grasley's prior album but, if someone threw it on six months from now, I'm sure I'd be able to perk up my ears and recognise him.
The best song here is surely Love Conquers All, which kicks off rather like a cheeky Beatles track and only gets funkier. The opening riffs aren't from Greg Godovitz's guitar but the bass of Mike King, occasionally echoed by the saxophone of Grasley's dad, Sonny Del Rio, who's showcased on Sonnyfoxdale, the instrumental interlude before it. There's some Beatles on Baby XO too, a fundamental melodic line always Grasley's primary goal.
Rather than just turn out Love Conquers All in nine different guises, there are a lot of different sounds on this album, which thus occasionally becomes a little schizophrenic at points. For instance, Jct 66 is much heavier than anything else here, almost a grunge song on a melodic rock album. It's not a bad song at all, but it feels out of place. Then there's Richard, a tribute to Richard Newell, best known as King Biscuit Boy, whom Grasley met when his dad was performing with Newell's band, Crowbar (no, not that one). This song is emphatically a blues song, which would have felt less out of place had it not followed Jct 66.
Earlier songs are more consistent but with their own quirks that bring them quite a lot of life, often in Grasley's songwriting as much as, if not more than, his singing. There's some quirky harmonising on Haterz that I dig and Strange finds a particularly neat groove. This one's almost like an eighties song hauled out for a timely revamp to comment on just how much has changed in the decades since then. Dale Harrison provides some memorable drums here and he's reliable across much of the album. A number of guitarists add good solos too.
By the way, I like Strange just as it is, but I could totally see it become a hit for someone else, in precisely the same way that Tom Waits is known by so many through the songs of others more palatable to the mainstream, like the Eagles or Rod Stewart, who's incidentally related to Grasley through his mother. I expect to see Grasley's Strange on YouTube in future years with a host of comments from people who found the original from a indie movie after it had become famous in a version by someone else.
It might take you a couple of songs to get into this, but listen through a few times and it'll take root in your skull as a set of melodic rock songs that don't sound like anyone else. And I see that as a good thing.