Baby Grand was (and still is) one of my favorite Sacramento pop bands despite what I consider to be a few dubious decisions on their part. Although Spectrum (2002) was Baby Grand’s debut, I didn’t discover it until well after I became acquainted with their more established sound. Starting out as a threesome (Gerri Ranta: vocals/guitar; Tim White: bass; Tony Cale: drums), they knocked out punchy and cheerful pop tunes that sounded very similar to the Go-Go’s but with less memorable material. Only one song (“Letters”) gave an indication of where the band would be heading a few years down the road. Not a bad introduction, but not quite what I had hoped for having already been a fan of its later work.
Baby Grand didn’t really hit its stride until Coming True (2008), a long-awaited 7-song EP that served as its second release but its first as a band that had decidedly found its voice. Gerri and husband Tim added Cory Vick on guitar and Erik de Kok on keys, and with David Houston providing production, the expanded ensemble crafted an elegant and sophisticated sound that was gentle even during its most upbeat numbers. The new approach brought out the best in Gerri as a songwriter and provided numerous hooks for her delicate vocals. This is timeless music with a light touch that is rarely heard these days even though I’m sure there is an audience just clamoring for more like this. The easy comparison is Belle and Sebastian, but Baby Grand managed to succeed on its own merits without sounding like a deliberate copy. I won’t bother mentioning any standouts because Coming True is just one great tune after another, capping things off with a sublime ode to homesickness called “My Heart is Here.” Gerri and her gang quickly followed that triumph with another EP, Lights Are Getting Low (2008). With this one, the band added a few more players and horns to the mix but retained the basic style of its predecessor. Again, every song is an outright winner, from the peppy “Tell Me Now” to the lingering closer “Don’t Look Down.”
I’ve mentioned earlier that I’m not terribly found of EPs, and I have to admit that Coming True and Lights Are Getting Low still leave me feeling frustrated. Cory Vick had given me a demo of the former and told me the band had five more songs they’d been working on that could likely be included with the first batch when it was all ready to be released. Having already been impressed by the four tracks that were available through MySpace at the time, I was quite excited anticipating a full album that would be of comparable quality. The remaining three songs on Coming True pointed to a classic in the making, so the realization that the two were being put out separately was quite heartbreaking to me. The EPs are undeniably magnificent, but these twelve songs collected together could have resulted in one of the best pop albums of its kind. Most definitely something I would have handed out as gifts at Christmastime.
A couple years ago, I happened to bump into Cory at Phono Select and asked him about what Baby Grand had been up to. I was disappointed to hear that the band had broken up and that Gerri was essentially returning to the sound of Spectrum with a new group called Arts & Leisure. I had hoped for one more Baby Grand CD to both enjoy and write about, and I had remembered reading about such a project some time earlier in a local publication. Well, as I was checking out the Sacramento music section just minutes later, I was astonished to find it sitting there . . . Arts & Leisure (2012), the last official Baby Grand album! How did that get past me?! It was certainly something to look forward to, and it turned out to be almost as consistently top-notch as the two EPs. The lineup was the same as that gathered for Lights Are Getting Low, and their performances continued to feature what had become the Baby Grand formula. “Cherry Blossoms,” “Fool for Your Love,” and “Can’t Keep Us Apart” were already familiar to me from live shows, but I was also won over by other highlights such as “Quand Tombent Les Ombres,” their inevitable stab at French pop likely inspired by Françoise Hardy, as well as the dreamy beat-driven “I Know This is Real.” And just when you think Gerri had stretched the breathiness of her voice to its limit, along comes “Skyline” to prove you wrong!
I’ve seen Arts & Leisure perform a few times and I find it difficult to understand why Gerri bothered to change the name of a band that is still Baby Grand as far as I’m concerned. Yes, there’s a harder edge to the pop they play now and Becky Cale has joined the group as a songwriter and vocalist, but stylistic and personnel changes had always been a part of Baby Grand’s history. Gerri, Cory, and Tim are still on board as the core of the band, and they could have just as easily dismissed what came before without losing an essential part of their identity.
Bonus Fun Fact – This is more of an observation. Each release has included at least one song devoted to a particular season: “May Queen” (“I’ll call you in the spring . . .”), “Autumn Wind,” “Winter Night,” and “Summer House.” If that’s not enough for you, how ’bout this? Herb Fame of Peaches & Herb fame once referred to a tune by another Sacramento band he was reviewing for the now-defunct Midtown Monthly as “a Baby Grand song,” which makes him a lot cooler than any of us could have imagined. And who wrote the Musical Chairs column that followed right after in that same issue? Twas me!
You can find Baby Grand’s Coming True for sale here.