Grifter, Grifter: A Welcome Guest

Grifter have a lot working in their favor. After two increasingly strong EPs and arguably the most memorable contributions out of the four bands included on the Heavy Ripples split Ripple Music 7”, the UK trio make their debut in the form of the 11-track Grifter, also released via Ripple. The album keeps to much the same ethic as their 2010 The Simplicity of the Riff is Key EP, at least philosophically, but the band – vocalist/guitarist Ollie Stygall, bassist Phil and drummer Foz – has grown remarkably in terms of their songwriting and Stygall’s vocals, so that where their prior work had potential, Grifter’s Grifter is showing it already beginning to pay off. This is doubly impressive for what’s essentially their first record, but the band has been kicking around England’s southwest since 2003 and Grifter shows it. They are mature in basically every way but the lyrics, which take a charming, smirking delight in the sexually perverse or mundane frustrations of the everyday dude. Misogynist fecalphilia isn’t really my thing – and I don’t think it’s Grifter’s either, though you never know – but I’m not about to deny that “Alabama Hotpocket” is catchy as hell, the title also accounting for roughly half of the rudimentary, blues-styled lyrical content. Keeping it simple, indeed.

Stygall, Foz and Phil are remarkably good at just that. Grifter as an album makes no effort to hide where it comes from as Stygall caps riffingly infectious opener “Good Day for Bad News” with a “yowza” straight out of the Axl Rose playbook or throws a well-timed “Alright now/Won’t you listen?” into “Strip Club,” the expectation being that most who find Grifter lurking amidst the crowded mass of potent heavy rock acts out there will appreciate the nod to Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf.” They’re right, and if nothing else, it gives those who’d encounter Grifter a sense of being among peers. Where many bands will deny outright listening and enjoying the kind of music they play, Grifter sound like fans of heavy rock, so that their ‘70s moves (think a less fuzzed Josiah, if we want to stay with British acts for comparison), such as including a second track somewhat off-kilter in approach from the rest of the album, feel genuine if also self-aware. The riffs and grooves throughout the album are their own, and the songs are stripped down in approach as to be near universal in their application. “Good Day for Bad News” sets a tone of memorable songwriting and proves no fluke in terms of the level of the rest of the material. It’s the kind of track that one listen will have imprinted on your consciousness and three will make the mark near permanent, affirming what “Hey Ron” from Heavy Ripples first asserted concerning Grifter’s ability to right a rock tune, and “Asshole Parade” makes subtle pushes toward stoner distortions in its “And I’m beautiful when I’m pissed off” break without ever going completely over to that side of the genre. It is the longest track on the album at 4:36 and puts that extra time into a closing instrumental break that’s nonetheless justified by its groove and the crisp layers of Stygall’s guitar.

That is one thing about Grifter that will probably surprise those who usually traverse the grounds of heavy rock: It sounds immaculate. Recorded and mixed between December 2010 and January 2011 by Rich Robinson at Big Red Recording, the guitar and bass are clear and separated, and Foz’s cymbals ring through excellently on “Strip Club” and elsewhere, but nothing sounds overdone or digitally lifeless. I’ve little doubt Grifter recorded onto a computer, but as an increasing number of engineers are proving able to do, Robinson gets a vibrant, warm feel from the band, so there’s a bit of the best from both worlds in the finished product of “Young Blood, Old Veins,” which closes Side A, and about which one doesn’t even initially notice the recording job for the hooky chorus riff. In that way, Grifter is like the machine you only see half the gears of; it only looks simple compared to the hard work that’s actually gone into it. As Stygall touts his lack of regrets on “Young Blood, Old Veins” or invokes a handclap revival in the verses of “Bucktooth Woman” (the centerpiece of the CD), all is secondary to the song, which is precisely as it should be for this kind of rock. Grifter’s tones are thick and satisfying on that level, but nothing outrageous in themselves, and Foz proves more than capable as Grifter progresses – adding swing to the final verse of “Bucktooth Woman” – but is never showy or overly complex in what he does. Again, they keep it simple, but the trio in no way revel in the kind of haphazardness of some heavy rockers. The performances are tight and the mix is well balanced.

Clutch sticks out as an inevitable comparison point for “Preacher and the Devil,” where Stygall’s shuffling riff is underscored capably by Phil’s grooving bass runs. Though Grifter is rife with strong choruses and “Preacher and the Devil” is one of them, the track otherwise proves less of a standout than some of the earlier material. Ultimately a lead from Stygall saves it – the guitar coming in and going out in the neo-modern tradition – and the inclusion of a couple deeper cuts isn’t sound I’d hold against the band. “Bean,” which follows, could easily rest in the same category. A start-stop riff is one of the more predictable moves on the album, but if you’ve already been hooked by the earlier songs, it’s likely something you’ll gloss right over for the first few listens. The pair of tracks don’t offer much stylistically that Grifter hasn’t already done, but when Foz cuts the drums to half-time after two minutes into “Bean,” it works all the same, setting the table for a return to the more impressive closing trip of “Piss and Gas,” “Unwelcome Guest” and “Gone Blues,” each of which could easily have been on the first half of the record – well, maybe not “Gone Blues,” but only because it works so well as the closer. “Piss and Gas” takes a familiar riff progression and twists it around a driving, sped-up verse and a righteous hook of a chorus. It’s not a surprise from Grifter, whose penchant for structure would lead one to believe they’d be able to sequence the record effectively, but the song is worth appreciating for where it is along with what it is.

Ditto that for “Unwelcome Guest,” which reminds of the lyrical humor of “Strip Club” or “Asshole Parade” with a repetitive verse methodology and lines like, “I won’t read your Bible stories/But I’ll teach your daughter bad from good.” The “I won’t/I will” tradeoff is the crux of the song, but the music holds up behind it, and as the finale of Grifter’s rock material, it works well and is one of the tracks on the album I’d most be interested in seeing live. All the more, then, is “Gone Blues” a curveball on the part of the band, putting rhythmic chains and handclaps behind acoustic guitar, slide guitar, a softer vocal from Stygall and backing “Ah-hoos” that remind of the darker country touch Michael Gira put into Angels of Light’s We are Him. Perhaps most impressive of all about “Gone Blues,” though, despite its considerable change in atmosphere and mood, is that the groove of the earlier material is retained, which stands as another testament to the songwriting ability of the band. It’s an old guitar player cliché that if a song works it can work acoustic or electric, and I believe that with a different arrangement behind it, “Gone Blues” could be just as heavy and just as effective as any of the other tracks on Grifter, and likewise several of them could be turned on their head in much the same way. Stygall, Foz and Phil have done an excellent job crafting straightforward heavy rock that has both personality and a touch of lightheartedness, but gives up none of its performance edge to attain them. The trio have clearly learned their lessons from the experience of prior releases, and one looks forward to their hopefully ongoing development and continued refining of the process. Killer riffs, engaging hooks and impressive songs are always welcome by me, and Grifter’s Grifter offers all of that and more.

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