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Pop Culture

Former bar band gives pop a heartfelt embrace

In March 2002, Grand Champeen were in their ragged glory, playing a show at the dive Beerland in their native Austin, just before the South By Southwest Music Conference. They were supporting their first record, the awesomely named “Battle Cry for Help,” and the show was a fair representation of their sound. Mid-period Soul Asylum and late-model Replacements. All booze and out-of-tune guitars

How things have changed. On March 6, the band releases “dial T for this,” one of the early surprises of the year. It would be tired to say the band has matured, but you’d have to be deaf not to notice how this once loud-fast-rules crew has transformed into a tight pop outfit whose songs would be at home on the best of mid-’70s radio.

From the folksy “Nice of You to Join Us” to the chiming “Cities on the Plain” to the album’s signature rocker “Wounded Eye,” there are hints of Wings, Gram Parsons, Eagles, ELO, Nick Lowe, some Blur-ish Britpop and mid-period Beatles.

“Early on we were always compared to the Minneapolis bands of the mid-’80s. I’ve always viewed that as an insane complement. I’m a huge fan of all those bands,” says frontman Channing Lewis. “But when it comes down to it we don’t always sound like those bands. People are like ‘Grand Champeen, you’re like The Replacements.’ We don’t really sound like The Replacements. I mean we suck occasionally and play stupid covers. And we don’t always take our careers seriously. It’s a little bit of a misnomer perhaps.”

He goes on to explain, “Perhaps the biggest seismic shift in our influences with this record is that we just accepted a poppier sound. I mean we’re all big Beatles fans now — more today than we were four years ago. The Beatles were a huge influence on this record,” he says. “We learned a few of their songs, and in the process of learning them we were kinda blown away at the complexity and mystery of what seemed to be pretty simple stuff.”

OK, they’re not The Beatles (for better or worse, who is) but the description makes sense. These are some pretty densely layered songs, with deceptively clever lyrics. One particular killer from “Wounded Eye” is the chorus closer: “Don’t litter my life with your love.”

And there is the ridiculously catchy “Rottweiler Hair,” with a melody that you’ve heard in about 1,000 western songs, yet it’s still affecting — despite the weirdness that the title is somehow a compliment to the girl who is the song’s subject.

“[Dial] was a lot harder to make than our other records because [back then] we were always in our comfort zone of four-piece loud rock and roll,” Lewis says. “We didn’t have to hit every note or get every little thing right. I look back and those are good records. But it’s a lot tougher to try to do something that is, you know, sparse. Or something more melodic. If you’re doing vocal harmonies and you’re lazy about it, it can be really bad. If you want the kind of arrangements we sought out this time, you’ve got to have better execution and more thought.”

He adds, “It’s layered and lush, but it’s also more exposed. Everything isn’t hiding behind a guitar. Vocally, you have to be better. The drumming on this record is phenomenal. Ned [Stewart] spent the last three years focusing on his playing. When you have a rock-solid rhythm section, you can pull out a guitar and replace it with a piano.”

A typical example is the album’s last rocker, “The Songs You Want to Hear.” The stomp is from a band that learned to play sloppy ’80s alternative rock, but the woozy fuzzbox guitar and soaring harmonies that push the song make it sound as if it’s from another era.

Lewis is proud of the fact that all the strings, piano and horns — instruments they never would have used before — were from live musicians. The CD case carries the proviso that all music was performed by actual musicians on actual instruments. The band also features Alex Livingstone on bass and Michael Crow on guitar.

“It’s funny because these big chances I refer to us taking are these seemingly little, stupid, obvious things like using a piano or putting some horns,” Lewis says. “But that isn’t that big of a chance to take except when your bread and butter has been loud guitars for years and years.”

That said, the band can’t take a horn section out on the upcoming tour. So the new Grand Champeen may have to meet the old one halfway on stage.

“It’s a little different. Right now, our live show leans heavily on the new material but it still has a little bit of the old swagger. Obviously, some of the new songs are not going to sound like they did on the record. I will say we sound more like the record than you might think we would,” Lewis says. “We’re slightly more in control of what we’re doing. It used to be mostly a whirlwind. We could play an entire show and I’d just feel like ‘What the hell just happened?’ And those were usually the good shows. If there is one thing the record is missing, it may be that wild card, that mania we bring to playing live. I mean it’s like the record, only drunk.”

That tour will begin in the West in April, with the Midwest in May and East Coast in June. Expect an energetic show, if not the band of five years ago.

For more information on Grand Champeen, visit: http://www.grandchampeen.com/.

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