Grant Charles’ long-running project expands in name and sound.
Them Grant Charles Boys is a new project as much as an old one. Grant Kempski (who releases music as Grant Charles), a Madison transplant from Pennsylvania, released a pair of plaintive solo folk EPs in 2016, Grantville and Shenandoah. Appropriately—considering that those releases were largely comprised of acoustic guitar and vocals—both releases came out under Charles’ name. The newly released Them Grant Charles Boys is a record that unmistakably centers Charles but expands the minimal musical trappings of his 2016 works to incorporate the talents of some contemporaries, including Jonathon Millionaire‘s Lawrence Gann, who played on, engineered, and produced the album. All of the songs on offer are reworkings of ’90s and 2000s pop-country songs in a full-band setting, allowing Charles a means to beta-test various musical avenues for any potential future application in his own work.
Charles handles guitar, vocals, and keys across the record’s 10 tracks. Ben Strohbeen takes on bass duties, and Gann mans the drums in addition to handling the bulk of the technical end of production duties, with some light assistance from Craig Hoffman. In preparation for recording, the core trio played a few live shows to get comfortable with the material before tracking Them Grant Charles Boys live in a main session. Two more sessions were added for overdubs before Gann took the recordings across the finish line.
A take on George Strait’s “Write This Down” immediately sets about cleverly redefining Charles’ existing musical imprint while simultaneously acting as a tone-setter for a record that revels in subverting expectations. Charles’ past work, both as a solo artist and with the Pennsylvania-based Little Tower, largely leans towards traditional presentation, rarely testing the limits of genre specificity. Them Grant Charles Boys offers an emphasis on an array of influences that extend from ’50s pop to modern alt-country and southern rock, never settling into genre-specific trappings. There’s a new punchiness to the work on Them Grant Charles Boys that serves the record well. Even a brief foray into reggae-esque guitar work on a cover of Shenandoah’s “Two Dozen Roses” yields an immediate impact.
On a reworking of Rhett Akins’ “That Ain’t My Truck,” Them Grant Charles Boys embrace a gritty southern rock mode a la Drive-By Truckers, delivering their version with an appropriate amount of venom. “That ain’t my shadow on her wall / Lord, this don’t look good at all” is an especially memorable couplet tucked into the chorus of a narrative about grappling with the jealousy that accompanies feelings of unrequited love, elevated here by the band’s commitment. An additional vocal track adding light harmony drives home a desperation that’s unmistakably, unflinchingly human. All the while, a raucous charge of treble-y twang and muddy low-end tones underscore a biting, blue-collar resentment that ultimately abates in defeated acceptance via Charles’ final, resignatory “that ain’t my truck.”
As anyone would expect with the onus squarely on ’90s and 2000s pop-country, the lyrical subject matter here exists squarely within the confines of any Country Lyrics Bingo card. That Charles and the band he’s assembled are able to inject new life into this material and keep it from feeling repetitive is a testament to both their individual talents and their understanding of the material. Transforming Toby Keith’s “Should’ve Been A Cowboy” into something more reminiscent of an early-2000s alternative rock/pop song evidences Them Grant Charles Boys’ penchant for sly subversion, subtly illustrating that certain eras of music have particular throughlines that reach across ostensibly disconnected genres.
Them Grant Charles Boys‘ penultimate track, a bluesy, barn-burning, boogie-ridden run through John Michael Montgomery’s “Beer And Bones” is the record’s most fiery moment, and scans as a victory lap for the whole project. Closer “All I Wanna Do Is Play Cards,” originally by Corb Lund And The Hurtin’ Albertans, is the most faithful adaptation on the record and sees Charles reverting to the minimal setup of his earlier records. Like everything else here, it works.
Curiosities like this one don’t hit Madison music all that often and they’re rarely this considered or interesting. In reinventing a string of thoughtfully curated country-pop songs of a bygone era, Charles has also seemingly forged a path to his own musical reinvention. Them Grant Charles Boys is yet another indication that deconstructing the past can benefit both present and future.