The cover of Anticipation, the third proper album under the name Sleeping Policeman by South Carolina's Charles Grace, is of a lamb's silhouette backlit by flames. This is an apt visual analogy for Grace's music - it's gentle at heart but burns and sparks with passion and energy.
Grace has been playing guitar since he was 13, going on to receive a bachelor's degree in classical guitar performance. Grace's training shows - his songwriting and arrangements are complex and innovative, like the slack-keyed chicken strut walkdown on "All Your Fears," which erupts into a glorious, heaven-sent sunburst vocal chorus, out of nowhere. Having a complex musical vocabulary gives Grace the ability to speak an intricate emotional language - polysyllabic expressions of longing, confusion and the many shades in between the primaries.
Grace's guitar fluctuates across a wide variety of tones and styles, both acoustic and electric. The album opens with a progressive finger style acoustic number, "Anticipation," that nods back to Grace's classical training, and further, to instrumental boundary pushers like finger style guitarist Andrew York, Paco De Lucia and John Fahey, with its roman candle harmonics and rustic Americana double-stops, like driving down a highway to forever with a pedal note bass playing the part of tires on tarmac.
After such ornate loveliness "All Your Fears" comes as a surprise, with a low down, slow burning country bite and growl that sounds like a less scuzzy '70s Neil Young. Grace plays it simple and restrained - although the songwriting is snazzy, almost Tin Pan Alley or Brill Building but also sounding like the thinnest, most stoned-washed '70s country blues rock you'll ever hear.
Styles and moods continue to shift, like a never-ending kaleidoscope, until all concept of genre disappears. There's a vaguely sunshine-y, upbeat bounce that continues throughout from the reggae skank of "Caretaker's Eyes" to the lyrical jazz rock of "Prodigal Father," built around a simple, memorable guitar riff. That upbeat bounce equates to optimism, which Grace summarizes by saying, "I believe that these songs point towards some kind of hope and redemption, as well as a newfound sweetness in my life."
He has good reason to feel optimistic. Anticipation is the first record conceived with a band, fleshed out to a three-piece, but with a laundry list of instruments between them. Everybody was on the same page including the engineer, Jim Harris, who recorded the band at his JBH Record Studio, in Myrtle Beach, SC. Even though Grace is a hotshot guitarist, he does not overplay, even when he is playing complicated solo pieces. When playing as a band, Grace leaves plenty of space in his playing, sticking at times to nearly rhythm guitar economy, which is then fleshed out with Timothy Hardwick's bass, mandolin and sometimes dual guitar to vibrant effect. First, and foremost, Hardwick gets a fierce tone, low down, growling, muscular yet slinky. His lines aren't overly busy, and he holds the grooves, interacting with Caleb LeBarre's drumming, which is mostly functional but occasionally shines forth like the solid slo-mo disco of "Beating Heart." The band brings Grace's compositions to pulsing life.
It's these details, the way the bass twines around the guitars, the swelling strings of "Wholesome House" that make you lean in and listen closer. At first, I was in danger of dismissing this record as imitation blues-rock. In the wrong light, the sounds can sound kind of thin and tinny, grating rather than petting, but closer examination in a proper listening environment revealed a lusher soundscape, deeper, softer. I was better able to fall under Sleeping Policeman's spell, and see where they were coming from.
Charles Grace is an accomplished musician, and a thoughtful, heartfelt human. He seems like he is developing his lexicon, working out what he is trying to say, so as to speak it more eloquently. The lush arrangements and nuanced songwriting say he should keep it up. By the next record, he should be fluent.
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