Grand Mal front man Bill Whitten is staying low in Brooklyn—writing songs, running cold miles in the park near his apartment at night, going to work in the morning. He’s got a head full of revolution and a heart full of rock ‘n’ roll and he’ll talk about one or the other, depending on his mood. He likes them both about equally, but he’s not sure they aren’t the same thing. “My sister is a vision of revolutionary light / It’s ’cause of rock ‘n’ roll she want to smash the state / Has Ho Chi Minh infected her brain?” he sings on “Count Me In” from the incredible new album Love is the Best Con in Town. A call to rock, rise up, or both, the song swings with dirty Johnny Thunders leads and a lurching T. Rex shuffle.
Whitten has been perfecting this kind of swaggering, three-chord guitar boogie for years now—drawing on the New York Dolls, Mott the Hoople, the Faces—and he keeps getting better at it. But there has always been something about Whitten that separates him from the legions of New York bands who claw at the coattails of the city’s 1975. He has a razor-keen eye for detail and he can turn a phrase with the best of them. (“David Bowie died in my dream last night / He lay in his coffin with his baleful eye / Then he turned into you.”) Whitten harkens back to Paul Westerberg, Jagger and Richards, Ian Hunter. The lyrics never forget that the guitars are in charge. He whips Grand Mal into such a low-rent Exile on Main Street fury that it takes a minute to realize that this is the work of one of the best songwriters going.
Maybe that minute has passed. Grand Mal has a new album out on the fledgling but extremely hip New York Night Train Records. Love is the Best Con in Town is Whitten’s best work by far. It keeps the downtown cool of 2003’s great Bad Timing but adds the sweeping melodies of Hunky Dory-era Bowie and the starkness of Neil Young’s On the Beach. “I wrote all the songs on piano, because my guitar was such a piece of crap,” Whitten laughs. “After I began recording the songs, somebody lent me a Les Paul Junior. I had no band so I cajoled all my friends into playing with me.”
With the album set for release this month and a must-see CD-release show coming up in New York, Whitten is cautiously optimistic. He knows that rock ‘n’ roll can be a con too. He has been courted and ripped off by major and indie labels alike. He doesn’t care much, though. He figures it is the price of an education. He is looking forward to the upcoming shows. He knows he has written a great album. All he wants to do now is crank up the amps and play it.