Culturespill » Nashville

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

4th December


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?”). 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.

Josh Rouse: Folk-Pop’s Newest King of Cool

8th April


If you think it’s easy to produce 12 consecutive albums of reliably laid-back folk-pop over ten years, you try it! In the tradition of J.J. Cale and Belle & Sebastian (when’s the last time you heard those artists named in the same sentence?!), Rouse is bringing “cool” back to a place it hasn’t been since Skip Spence strapped a guitar to his back and rode his motorcycle to Nashville to record Oar, that legendary specimen of psychedelic mastery he made amid a delirium of alcohol and schizophrenia which eventually sent him packing for the 13th floor at Bellevue. Now, I’m not nominating Rouse as a candidate for Jack Nicholson’s role in a remake of Kesey’s Cuckoo’s Nest–Skip did break down the door of a bandmate’s hotel room with a fucking fire axe in ’68 and spend the last 30 years of his life homelessly drifting the streets of Santa Cruz, after all–but Rouse commands exactly the kind of ethereal grit and immediacy that Skip Spence patented all those years ago.

Though it is apparent that someone ill-advisedly encouraged Rouse to get happier after his gorgeous third album, Under Cold Blue Stars–fraught as it was with sublimely broken-hearted masterpieces like “Christmas With Jesus” or “Ugly Stories”–there remains an unmistakable earnestness in Rouse’s delivery, his thin wail of a voice that melts in your ear like a lover’s whisper, the way he brings every ounce of bone and blood he’s got to the music he makes. I liked that version of Rouse, how somewhere beyond the gloss and syrup of “Feeling No Pain” stood a man who “might travel all the way to Mexico / with a pickaxe to put an end to things,” as Stephen Dunn put it in a poem once. If you can’t recall a time when life shoved you deep into the cushions of your couch with only a bottle of Yellow Tail and a song to accompany your defeat, then you can’t recall a time when you’ve lived. Those are the times I tend to welcome Josh Rouse into my living room like some forgotten friend I’ve trusted with my most private fears.


Alexander “Skip” Spence

Maybe I’m alone on this one, but I’m the kind of guy who knows he’s seen a good movie when he feels like killing himself by the time it’s over–stuff like Requiem for a Dream or Christine Jeffs’s tragically neglected Rain (try getting through that one without pissing from the eyes, tough guy.) It’s like my brother-in-law said as we split a bottle of jack we sneaked through the door of a Steve Earle show in New York City one night, “I like a song that hurts my feelings.” Amen, bro. And who better than a disciple of Townes Van Zandt–you know, the guy who sang about slitting his mother’s throat “just to get her pearls”–to deliver on our morbid craving, belting ballads like “Lonlier Than This” that echo from somewhere in the bottom of a bad blue dream.

Hailing from the curiously fertile creative grounds of Nebraska–an epicenter of indie-rock genius where greats like Conor Olberst make their home–Rouse began his childhood of changes in a place called Paxton, constantly moving from town to town as the son of a military man back when the sounds of Neil Young or Fleetwood Mac dominated FM radio, bands that tip-toed into the distance of songs he himself would produce years later. There are many diamonds to mine from Rouse’s prolific oeuvre, but the most glittering among them span a sonic bridge between the ambient levity of Fleetwood’s “Gypsy” and the dour minimalism of Young’s “Albuquerque,” a musical stew that’s every bit as delicious as it sounds.

Josh Rouse: “Winter in the Hamptons”

If much of Rouse’s music is no heavier than a breeze at the beach in spring–particularly on the supine Subtitlio he recorded after splitting with his wife and defecting to Spain (as good a reason as any to be “supine”)–it is no less substantive because of it. And anyway, just when you think you’ve got this cool cat cornered, an album like 2005’s Nashville thunders with a vaguely unsettled dirge like “Why Won’t You Tell me What,” a spare and thumping chant that delivers the kind of bluesy acrimony you’d expect of a middle-aged loungesinger at some watering hole up the block, positioning his 14th cigarette in an ashtray on the lid of a beaten piano that’s knifed with the names of a thousand long-gone couples. Amid the apparent serenity of Rouse’s more recent material–breezy tunes like “Quiet Town” or the flawless “Hollywood Bass Player” from 2007’s Country Mouse album–it’s this defiant strand of discontent that completes the complex character his songs reveal, a ballsy volatility that so many songwriters might be wise to consider.