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The Grammies Get it Right! (Wait, say WHAT??!)

4th December

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Just when you think the Grammies are so full of crap that you can barely stand the stink any longer, they toss some nods in the direction of folks like Arcade Fire, Black Keys, Vampire Weekend, Band of Horses, Neil Young, Richard Thompson, Bela FleckBroken Bells, Florence & The Machine and other groups that can never be mistaken for anything other than actual, you know, recording artists. Even ol’ Willie has something to distract him from his 78th pot bust last week, scoring a nod for his rootsy album Country Music, a stripped-bare dose of country music the way it sounded before Nashville strapped it to a post and paddled it until it agreed to become the foul and unlistenable bastardization of the genre that it is today.

Of course, this is the Grammies, and so the 53rd annual awards show will feature, as usual, one of the most bizarre crossroads the music industry can possibly assemble. Grizzled warhorses like Neil Young will share the same billing as Drake and Jay-Z and the utterly insufferable Jewel will inhabit the same edifice as Win Butler. But that’s how it is at the Grammy Awards, where Lady Gaga lavishes Elton John in a rain of adoration from across her piano, Brittney Spears locks tongues with Madonna, and Soy Bomb gets more pub than Dylan the day after the latter brings home the first Album of the Year award of his life at the tender young age of 56 (an incident remembered fondly in the sublime Eels track, “Whatever Happened to Soy Bomb?”).

Top40-charts.com reports that the Grammies honored no less than 273 indie artists with nominations this year–more than half of all nominations. The story then goes on to completely discredit itself with a quote alleging that Taylor Swift is an indie artist. But given the embarrassing legacy that the Grammies have developed over the years, mere tastelessness is better than the baffling indifference afforded The Strokes and The White Stripes back in 2002, when both White Blood Cells and Is This It? earned a combined total of zero nominations despite their standing as easily the two most interesting and superior rock albums of the year. Instead, the “Best new Artist” category that year gave the Strokes the “talk to the hand” treatment in favor of acts like Michelle Branch. Right, enough said.

The Stripes got the shaft in favor of “artists” such as Avril Lavigne (who? That skater-chick from Canada who did that teeny-bopper anthem for Dawson’s Creek, you mean?) while The Neptunes, The Vines, and The Hives also got hosed. But if getting ignored by the Grammies is a sure way to demonstrate your creative integrity (hint: It is), The Strokes, Stripes and friends are doing just fine for themselves, thank you very much. As for who should win this year and, of course, who will win instead, here are Culturespill’s picks in a handful of the major categories:

Record of the Year:
images.jpgWith a slate of nominees such as Bruno Mars, Eminem, Lady Antebellum, Jay-Z, and something called “Cee Lo Green,” which I think is a kind of environmentally friendly glass cleaner, does anyone really give a shit who wins here? With ten nods going to Eminem in total, this one is almost certain to go to Mr. Shady. The Jay-Z/Alicia Keys “Empire State of Mind,” a song that basically amounts to a musical grocery list of all the neat things that the rich and famous appreciate about NYC, is a possible sleeper here–if for no other reason than to offer Alicia a baby gift in light of the recent birth of her son, Egypt Daoud Dean (Can you say “Apple Blythe Alison Martin“?).

Album of the Year:
index.jpgIt is just as obvious that Arcade Fire is by far the more deserving winner here as it is that the Grammy folks don’t have the balls to go there. The only genuinely daring winner of this category in recent memory was Steely Dan’s horrendous Two Against Nature, and maybe Dylan’s win for the brilliant and career-resurrecting Time out of Mind in 1998. Other than that, this one almost always goes to the pop trash celebrity of the moment, and that distinction, clearly, goes to Katy Perry for Teenage Dream, a sure-fire winner this year. Other nominees: Eminem, Recovery; Lady Antebellum, Need You Now; Lady Gaga, The Fame Monster. A good year for ladies named “Lady.”

Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance:
paul.jpgSurely Apple has paid off the Grammy folks by now to the tune of whatever it takes to ensure that McCartney wins for his delivery of “Helter Skelter” on Good Evening New York City, a live CD released this year on–wait for it–the Starbucks record label Hear Music. Whatever amount of payola the Grammy folks received from Apple to use this as further advertising fodder for their announcement that Beatles music is now available on iTunes will probably be enough to bring it home. It’s a crowded category this year, including used-up former gods such as Robert Plant or Eric Clapton, whose continued laurel-resting inspired perhaps the most notorious exchange in Culturespill history in the comments below our review of Clapton’s Robert Johnson covers album. If there was a true God, though, the good deity would ensure that this year’s award for Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance goes to its rightful winner, and that has to be Neil Young for “Angry World,” easily one of the man’s most inspired rock performances since the night he damn-near burned down the building with his terrifying performance of “Rockin’ in the Free World” on SNL in 1989. Le Noise is the most engaging record Neil has done in at least 15 years and earned him three nominations this year. Other nominees in this category: John Mayer, “Crossroads.” Yes, John Mayer. You are now free to throw up in your own mouth.

Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals:
arcade.jpgIt should come as no surprise that the track nominated in this category from the Black Keys’s brilliant new record Brothers happens to rank among the least interesting moments on the entire album. It is equally unsurprising that “Tighten Up” was also the first single that Nonesuch tagged for promos when the record hit the streets earlier this year. Had the Grammy shills bothered to actually listen to the record before choosing a track to nominate under this category, they might have considered “The Next Girl,” “Howlin’ For You” or “She’s Long Gone.” Since they failed to do so, the winner here has to be Arcade Fire’s “Ready to Start.” Other nominees in this category: Jeff Beck & Joss Stone, “I Put a Spell on You“; Kings of Leon, “Radioactive“; Muse, “Resistance.”

Best Rock Album:
muse.jpgFunny how the more cluttered the scene becomes with young bands vying for a spare slice of the glory pie their forebears baked so long ago, the more those forebears remind us that they know best how to rock. Three of the five nominees in this category have roamed the earth for a combined 180+ years: Neil Young, Jeff Beck, and Tom Petty. Others, the boy-band-as-rock-‘n-rollers concept group Muse and grunge priests Pearl Jam, ought to have no chance whatsoever in winning over any of the other three. Here again, Young’s “Le Noise” is by far the ballsiest record of the five nominees, with Beck’s “Emotion & Commotion” a clear runner-up only because Petty’s Mojo turned out to be running a little lower than he realized (forgettable toss-offs like “Candy” and “No Reason to Cry” cramp the style of rock ‘n roll stunners like “I Should Have Known it” and “Running Man’s Bible“). But, as always, most likely this one will go to the shittiest of the five nominees, namely Muse.

Click here for the full list of nominees for the 53rd annual Grammy Awards. If you prefer the PDF version, go here.

From Giorgio Moroder to Geico Caveman: You Oughtta Sue, George!

7th August

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Definitely NOT Giorgio Moroder!

If you too wish Geico would just dump the increasingly awful “Caveman” commercial series while their marketing people might still be able to salvage a scrap of credibility, consider this telling sign of a stale imagination: the most recent installment in the “so easy a caveman can do it” series of ads–which spawned a short-lived sit-com that was so hard to watch I actually caught myself begging to have my fingernails removed with a pair of tweezers–is a clear-cut rip-off of the unsung but brilliant Giorgio Moroder’s theme for the forgotten 1978 film Midnight Express, an 8-minute disco-meets-new-wave workout called “Chase,” and a tune that did more to pioneer the new wave genre than any blue-haired synth-master you care to name (the piece is well-known to listeners of the renowned late-night AM talk show, Coast to Coast AM, a show famous for the drunk people who come home late from the club and call in to exchange their Jesus sightings and alien abductions.) The tune scored Moroder an Academy Award.

Moroder, who received Italy’s honorary title of “Commendatore” in 2005, is the unseen architect of some of disco, new wave and punk’s biggest commercial successes–from Blondie’s “Call Me” (a hit that emerged from Moroder’s downright filthy “Man Machine” instrumental for the American Gigolo soundtrack) to Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” and her 16-minute epic, “Love to Love You Baby.” Interestingly, the “Man Machine” demo was originally pitched to Stevie Nicks, who turned it down (Oops! Wish ya had THAT one back, eh Stevie?). Blondie, of course, turned it into a smash hit both here and overseas.


Giorgio Moroder’s “Chase”: So Easy Anyone Can Steal It

It shouldn’t be hard to see at this point that Moroder, though relatively unknown, has more than enough money to assuage his anonymity. His other noted collaborations include work with Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Queen, Sammy Haggar, Janet Jackson, Kenny Loggins, Graham Nash, Bonnie Tyler, Barbara Streisand, Cher, and, while we’re at it, the Prince of Tides, the Three Little Pigs, and each of Snow White’s 7 dwarfs. To put it simply–this man’s hands have found their way into nearly every major movement in modern music over the past five decades. Zeppelin, Queen and Elton John are known for frequenting Moroder’s Musicland Studios in Munich over the years.

Now everyone’s begging to know who performs the catchy, lo-fi disco gem featured in Geico’s ad with the new “Disco Caveman,” who blathers in wince-worthy attempts at humor about “jazz hands” and “a lotta heel work” as he glides back and forth under a sparkling mirror ball, extolling the greatness of Baltimore’s disco scene. Yes–Baltimore. It’s almost funny, if only it didn’t all come off as such a forced and condescending plea to America’s Incredible Shrinking Attention Span. The piece, slapped together by “composer” Devin Smith for Honor Roll Music, is clearly a jazzed-up (no pun intended) take on Giorgio’s comparatively primitive–and therefore better–“Chase” instrumental. Should you doubt the comparison, investigate for yourself: give Moroder’s tune a listen, and then check out Devin Smith’s “Baltimore Disco Geico” in its entirety on his myspace page here.


Geico’s Disco Caveman: ha-ha (insert “golf clap” here)

The Perils of Political Songwriting

4th July

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Steve Earle

Few albums illustrate the dangers of an intersection between politics and art more profoundly than Steve Earle’s The Revolution Starts Now. Earle, a pioneer of so called “alt-country,” busted out of a stint in prison for drug and firearm charges to send his career soaring with a ferocious, spare comeback album called Train-A-Comin’ in 1995, scoring himself a Grammy the following year. Not bad for a guy who, only months prior, couldn’t shake his taste for heroin and called a cage home. A disciple of the legendary Townes Van Zandt, Earle’s brand of country ditched the women-and-whiskey cliches of old Nashville and replaced it not with the painfully unlistenable bullshit that town’s major studios crank out now–you know, riding a cowboy to save a horse and the Honky Tonk Ba Donky Donk (Hank Williams winces in his grave)–but rather with a new attitude and something different to say, fusing country with a rap sheet and a bad attitude that sold as well on Broadway as it did on Music Row.

Then came the Bush administration, and, as is the case with many of us, something snapped. Albums like Jerusalem and the aforementioned Revolution preached more than they played, delivering lectures laid over music about the policies of the F.C.C. and war without end. These positions are all perfectly commendable, and they happen to coincide with mine. But with some exceptions (the blistering “Amerika V 6.0,” for instance) both the music and the message were compromised–the calm of the painter’s palette chucked for the fire of the pulpit–and the result is often a crude and condescending misfortune.


Steve Earle: “Oxycontin Blues,” Washington Square Serenade (2007)

Thankfully, Revolution Starts Now offers just enough redeeming moments to spare it from the utter failure it might have been, but the problem was that Earle had spent so many years demonstrating that he was capable of so much more than this, both as a composer and a writer. The politics are not the problem–and certainly not with me; I’m as lefty as lefty gets–the problem is that the many convenient and tossed-off details indulged throughout Revolution illustrate the risks any songwriter runs when appropriating their chosen craft for the purposes of political statement. The songs betray an otherwise prolific imagination, as Earle’s constant geography lesson — Baghdad, Basra, Kandahar –confine Revolution Starts Now to a much smaller range of ideas and emotions than Earle usually settles for, exactly the risk any songwriter takes when they know what they want to say before they even put a single word to paper. That’s probably what Milan Kundera meant when she said that “to be a writer doesn’t mean to preach a truth; it means to discover a truth.” Earle knows this, and that’s why Revolution was as surprising as it was disappointing, and a stark contrast to the brilliant return to form on last year’s Washington Square Serenade.

Works like Guitar Town, Copperhead Road and especially Transcendental Blues defied categorization with the broadness of their moods, sounds and ambitions; Revolution, by contrast, could quite easily be billed as Steve Earle’s “Iraq album.” It starts off familiarly enough: the distinctive thump and twang of the bellicose title track recalls past glories such as “NYC,” “Tanneytown” and “I Feel Alright,” and the instrumentation on the talking song, “Warrior” or the eloquent “I Thought You Should Know” are stirring enough, but so much of the album languishes in a sea of uninspired arrangements that wallow in over-written political invective. Clumsy and mawkish portraits such as the story of “Bobby” who “Left behind a pretty young wife and a baby girl / A stack of overdue bills and went off to save the world” really take away from the profound sentiments of such Earle staples as “Lonelier Than This” or “Christmas in Washington.” And remarks such as “yours for the motherfuckin’ revolution” or “Fuck the FCC / Fuck the CIA”–however justified they may be (and they are) probably do more to discredit those who speak out against the unspeakable and costly hubris of the Bush II era. It’s not that Earle’s political material isn’t true–it most certainly is true, and those who wish to argue with the man ought to do it to his face at their own risk–it’s that albums like Jerusalem and Revolution simply sell the man’s talents short, cornering his voice into merely a single aspect of its expression.


Steve Earle: “Tanneytown,” El Corazon (2000)

Not surprisingly, Earle becomes far more articulate when he separates the politics from the art. “Comin’ Around” and “I Thought You Should Know,” conveying moving portraits of scorned lovers overcoming their fear to give it another try, are easily Revolution’s finest moments, warm stories that look past the cliches to find the compassion, as authentic as they are anthemic. Clearly, songwriters who wear their politics on their sleeve walk a difficult balance. That Earle’s more recent Washington Square Serenade is so much more powerful–and so wholly absent of the kind of posturing described above–ought to serve as an instructive admonishment to younger songwriters who mistake art for a platform. Sometimes it can work–somehow Allen Ginsberg pulled it off fifty years ago, and even though Reagan didn’t quite get it, so did Springsteen in 1984–but if such a balance isn’t struck often, it’s because it can hardly be struck at all.

The White Stripes: The Elephant in the Room

2nd July

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Browse any number of music forums and message boards around the web sometime and search for threads related to The White Stripes. Invariably you will find a growing chorus of fans who fell in love with the post-punk sublimity of De Stijl and, to a lesser extent, the breakthrough White Blood Cells, only to be almost entirely alienated by the rotten egg they laid in 2003 with the muddled catastrophe of Elephant. Now with Icky Thump living up only to the first word of its title with the occasional exception (the title track among them), it seems as if the momentary streak of brilliance they offered on Get Behind Me Satan–a wild and stunningly successful departure from the tired recipe of previous albums–was merely a passing tease.

It’s surely no surprise that their major-label debut–Icky Thump–interrupted what Satan foreshadowed: a stretching of the band’s creative boundaries that left them to explore as broad a range of possibilities as ever before. In keeping with the kind of anxieties that accompany major-label debuts by established bands (as in Death Cab’s pitiful Plans, their first LP for Atlantic), Icky Thump sounded like the timid product of sessions in which the band tried their damnedest to sound like the band their label wanted–and so the album went in two different directions at once, with one foot on the beaten path of all the band had done before and the other in the more eccentric arrangements Jack White showcased on Get Behind Me Satan.

Satan qualifies as a rock ‘n roll landmark and is at once the band’s most daring and accessible piece of work–and if you think that’s an easy balance to strike, you try it, tough guy. But of all the band’s 6 albums, one stands alone as the turning point that we didn’t have the hindsight to see for what it was at the time: 2003’s Elephant, a total crapper of an album from start to finish that rivals only the more recent Icky Thump in indulgence and unlistenability.

After firmly establishing themselves as the undisputed rock ‘n roll resurrection by 2003, The White Stripes answered their growing frenzy of devotees with one dud of an album. A band that, just a year prior, was universally hailed as a much-welcome throwback to a sound long dead, the stripped down guitar/drums duo from Detroit seemed about as interested in fanning the flames of their growing fame as a 25-year-old Neil Young. “That album put me in the middle of the road, so I headed for the ditch,” Young, who followed up 1972’s monumental Harvest with the deliberately inaccessible Time Fades Away in 1973, explained years later. Young has since called it his worst album and, to this day, has refused to release it on CD (it remains a vinyl-only collector’s gem.) It seems that the White Stripes are up to much of the same thing on the careless, uninspired and puerile albums Elephant and Icky Thump.


The White Stripes: “Blue Orchid,” Get Behind Me Satan (2005)

What were addictive and delightfully anachronistic rockers on De Stijl and White Blood Cells have given way to a drab collections of clunkers that sound more like sloppy, half-baked demos and outtakes. Taut, muscular collections doused in blues and grit such as De Stijl demonstrated a mammoth potential, rekindling the hopes of long-time subscribers to the “rock is dead” mantra. The orgasmic cacophony that emerged from Meg White’s sizzling drums and Jack White’s guitar and uncanny wail produced a sound that resounded with improbable richness and fervor. It was hardly unfamiliar but still, somehow, distinctive. From gorgeous rock ballads like “Same Boy You’ve Always Known” to raucous jams like “Fell In Love With A Girl” or the brain-searing “Let’s Build A Home,” Meg and Jack White, knowingly or not, had taken the fate of rock ‘n roll into their hands.

Beginning with an unlikely bass line complimented by Meg’s angry, thumping drums, Elephant serves as a mighty tease. Just as it seems that The Stripes had at last discovered a sound of even deeper texture and richness without compromising their essential minimalism, the album unfolds into so much noise and nonsense. Song after song rings hollow, as Jack’s lazy guitar simply mimes old motions while the downright irreverent snap of Meg’s drumming is conspicuously dormant. A shrieking, murky chorus ruins the aimless “There’s Just No Home For You Here,” while “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” sounds, at best, like an anemic stepchild to superior ballads from past albums, such as “Union Forever” and “The Same Boy You’ve Always Known.”

Perhaps Elephant‘s most egregious moment comes on the pseudo-poetic “In The Cold Cold Night,” on which Meg White sounds entirely foolish, lending a self-conscious and timid croon to lines so juvenile as to be the stuff of bad teen angst poetry:

I saw you standing on the corner,On the edge of a burning light,

I saw you standing on the corner,

Come to me again in the cold cold night…

“I don’t care what other people say, I’m gonna love you anyway,” she continues to the plucking of a guitar lick that sounds like a ragged attempt at nailing down a Harry Mancini riff.


The White Stripes: “Well it’s True That We Love One Another,” Elephant (2003)

As with most rock ‘n roll mishaps, though, a few gems emerge from the rubble of an unfortunate album. The explosive “Seven Nation Army” resounds with such energy and purpose as to seem like the work of another band altogether. The mean-eyed “The Hardest Button to Button” would crack an indulgent smile from the mouth of any AC/DC die-hard, and a flicker of soul ignites the piano-drenched “I Want To Be The Boy”–a sound the band would extend to such astonishing effect on Get Behind Me Satan.

Overall, however, the once formidable White Stripes seem to have morphed into a joke that few others are cool enough to get. “Just say Jack do you adore me,” Meg slurs on the silly, throwaway tune recorded with punk-rocker Holly Golightly, “It’s True That We Love One Another.” “Well I really would Holly but love really bores me” Jack answers. Judging from the remarkably listless Elephant, one wonders whether the music, too, bores poor Jack.

Icky Thump and Elephant are the modern-day equivalents of Goat’s Head Soup and It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll, two underwhelming albums the Stones slapped together in the stunned aftermath of Exile on Main Street, that enduring masterpiece they released in 1972. Only fleeting glimpses of The Stones’ genius emerged from that point on–a tight tune somewhere on Tattoo You or a surprising sign of grit on more recent rock-outs like “Gunface” or “Dangerous Beauty.” If it’s true that history repeats itself, it’s a safe bet to expect only fleeting glimpses of brilliance from The Stripes going forward, yet another now-legendary rock band we once so trustingly relied on for an escape from the mindless doldrums of FM radio.


The Rolling Stones: “Gunface,” Bridges to Babylon (1997)