The Grip Weeds – How I Won the War [TrackList follows] – JEM/Strange Change Music MVD7134A, 50:01 [4/21/15] ***1/2:
(Kurt Reil – vocals, drums, guitar, lap steel, Wurlitzer, Hammond organ, piano, Mellotron, Minimoog, percussion; Kristin Pinell – guitar, vocals, flute, electric sitar, lap steel, cow bell; Rick Reil – vocals, guitar, electric sitar, harpsichord, Hammond and Farfisa organs, piano, Mellotron, Minimoog, percussion; Dave DeSantis – bass guitar)
Some groups wear their influences on their sleeves. Some go beyond that to group names and album titles. Die-hard Beatles fans may recognize where New Jersey psychedelic pop/power pop outfit, the Grip Weeds, get both their name and the title of their sixth studio release, How I Won the War. Both are John Lennon references. Lennon portrayed Musketeer Gripweed—the fictional soldier’s visage also graces the CD artwork—in the darkly-comic 1967 film set during World War II. But there’s more than Beatles-inspired music on the Grip Weeds’ 50-minute, 17-track record, which has 13 full-length tunes plus four instrumental, or nearly-so, interludes. The Grip Weeds—who formed in New Brunswick, NJ in the late ‘80s— pen rock music which ranges from British Invasion power pop (think the Kinks, the early Who and obvious nods to mid-‘60s Beatles) to Southern California pop and rock (such as the Buffalo Springfield and the Byrds) to ‘70s power pop (early Cheap Trick, Dwight Twilley and the Shoes). The Gripweeds tread retro-sonic territory akin to likeminded New Jersey bands such as the Smithereens or Yo La Tengo, although the Grip Weeds don’t necessarily sound like either of those better-known groups.
Although How I Won the War isn’t a concept album (the record has nothing to do with the movie, other than having the same title), the foursome explores persistent themes of conflict and resolve. Abetting the CD’s thematic quality are four interludes which precede some of the tunes. The thematic material came about partially because of the band’s near-breakup, when longtime bassist Michael Kelly left (he was replaced by Dave DeSantis). Furthering the drama were family ties which intensified some of the pressures—vocalist Kurt Reil is married to lead guitarist Kristen Pinell, and it was hard not to bring band tension into the home. But, ultimately this stress functioned as armor which helped the band ascend above difficulties.
Several songs surge with energy, including the driving, title track opener, with allusions to war imagery masquerading as relationship disillusion (“hearts and minds,” “on the run under the gun” and “blown apart shot through the heart”). The stomping rocker, “Follow Me Blind,” (the closest the Grip Weeds get to imitating the Smithereens) has as a comparable configuration with lines about how “it’s the same every day, I’m at war with you” and “it’s the love I capture all of the time.” The power-pop piece, “Rise Up,” has a similar structure but its lyrical stance is a shout against complacency, with words like “you plant your stick in the mud and look no further.” Power pop is a frequent focus with upfront and loud guitars (courtesy of Kurt Reil, Pinell and Kurt’s brother, Rick) and a locked-in, forceful rhythm section (DeSantis on bass guitar and Kurt on drums). Sibling harmonies and ringing guitars permeate the chorus-friendly rocker “Life Saver,” about how a romantic partner can also be the one who drags someone down. There’s a slice of the Beatles’ pop-psychedelic perspective during “Force of Nature,” but the ‘60s nostalgia is tempered by heavier guitars which evoke the Grip Weeds’ late-‘80s foundation.
The Grip Weeds tone the proceedings down a bit on the tersely pessimistic “Other Side of Your Heart,” which mixes in acoustic guitar and reflective lyrics, concerning how love can sometimes turn fallow. “Heaven and Earth” also has a brooding underpinning, where harpsichord provides a Moody Blues-type reverberation (this tune would fit right into some of the Moody Blues’ late ‘70s output). The Grip Weeds’ steady and sure grasp of ‘60s and ‘70s pop tactics comes out sturdily during “Rainbow Quartz,” which deftly blends acoustic and electric guitars, analog keyboards and percussive elements. The Grip Weeds aptly end with “The Inner Light,” an obscure Beatles B-side composed by George Harrison (“The Inner Light” was the flip side to the 1968 single, “Lady Madonna”). There’s a stronger sense of psychedelic music, and the addition of electric sitar supplies a definite mid-‘60s vibe. It’s a superb way to conclude an unfailingly effective album, and almost did not happen. Kurt Reil says the band had recorded the song, but did not plan to use it. But Marty Scott (JEM Recordings’ president) heard it and decided it just had to be on the record.
TrackList: How I Won the War; Rise Up; Follow Me Blind; Life Saver; Other Side of Your Heart; See Yourself; Vanish; Sounder (instr); Force of Nature; Crossfire (instr); Heaven and Earth; Over and Over; Rainbow Quartz; Truce (instr); Lead Me To It; aka Victory; The Inner Light.