Five years after debuting in Little Rock (performing then as the Benders), Grand Serenade has finally delivered its first full-length CD, “Lean Times.” With 12 songs of lush indie rock — big on soaring melodies and hooky guitar arrangements — the band lives up to the reputation it's built as one of Arkansas's strongest acts.
When it first surfaced, every conversation about the band started with, “They're a bunch of high school kids from Heber Springs,” conjuring images of Camaros, pickups, keggers at the lake and, of course, a soundtrack of stale classic rock and country music.
But even early Benders shows at Vino's revealed a sophisticated melodic sense and much promise. They may very well have been sneaking beer at Greers Ferry, but these kids were not listening to local radio. It was clear from the beginning that Heber Springs had produced a young band every bit as current as what was coming out of Silverlake or Williamsburg.
The question, of course, was whether the band would continue to be significant once its novelty wore off as its members reached legal drinking age and left Heber for the greener rock 'n' roll pastures of Little Rock.
After the name change (while the Benders was a great name, Grand Serenade is much more descriptive and accurate), the band continued to build its reputation with the strength of its live shows and, eventually, an EP, which featured “Colour My World.” The song was THE standout track on the first Localist compilation and was a perfect vehicle for Kyle Mays' vocals and Jordan Trotter's guitar.
“Lean Times” further establishes Grand Serenade as Little Rock's best indie rock band. At the heart of the album is a constant tension between melody and rhythm. Beautifully lush guitars and high-reaching vocals fight it out with bombastic and driving drums and bass.
This is music that sounds like summer. Not in a West Coast Brian Wilson way, but a take-the-top-off-the-Camaro-and-drive-around-the-lake-really-fast kind of summer. Lyrically, Heber's native sons replace typical indie rock cynicism with bright optimism. In an ode to moonlit beaches, Mays sings, “Good luck finding reason why I can't do more. When you tasted like peaches, it's all I could live for.”
One of the band's biggest strengths is its mature arrangements, but at times Grand Serenade gets a bit too ambitious and some complex arrangements tend to distract. An otherwise perfect “Well” ends with an unnecessary shuffling coda — perhaps cool live, but confusing on record.
Comparisons to indie rock darlings the Stills are inevitable — both bands share a common melodic sense and love for driving eighth notes, but if this record is reminiscent of anything specific, it's “War”-era U2 (“U Needed Action,” “Bond Girls”).
All but one song was recorded at Blue Chair studio in Austin, Ark. (“Try Harder” is a home recording dating back to 2003), and it's by far the best-sounding record to come out of the studio to date, no doubt in part because Trotter is an engineer at the studio.
“Lean Times” proves Grand Serenade is all grown up, but every bit as compelling as when they were just “a bunch of high school kids from Heber Springs.”
The album is available via maxrecordings.com.