I normally slag on the Grammys around this time of year. It’s always a well-deserved slagging.
The Grammys are usually the standard bearer of out-of-touchness, but in the two years I’ve been writing this blog the Grammy’s more compelling story lines actually played out to, according to my tastes, a victorious result. When the nominees for 2013 came out, I was excited to see what match-ups might pit an underdog against a platinum-selling artist, or a genre-out-of-water race for one of the bigger awards… but not a lot of that this year. Hardly anything worth getting worked up for at all. Oh, I’ll still watch–something entertaining, or at least entertainingly disastrous, will happen. Hopefully by/to Kanye West.
The match-ups suck, but there are some albums that I like that are nominated. Not my two favorite ones(later…), but at least five good ones. These five, in fact.
1. Channel Orange, Frank Ocean
You may be thinking “OOH THE GAY HYPE HIP-HOP ALBUM!” If you are, then you’ve only heard the hype, not the album.
Rest assured, there was HYPE. Tons. but…
…Frank Ocean isn’t necessarily GAY. Queer, for sure; the lyrics for two of the albums songs, the smooth and contemplative “Bad Religion” and the teenage-crush confessional “Forrest Gump” both contain instances where the speaker addresses a male lover. The rest of the songs address a female lover. He wants all the love, not just the manlove. And of the songs of the album? Well…
…it’s not a HIP-HOP Album. It’s hard to describe at all, save for “strange”. This whole album is full of the do-what-you-like coolness of The Love Below(toss-off instrumental with John Mayer included), but where there was some mystery as to how to qualify The Love Below, Channel Orange is clearly a soul/neo-soul/R&B mashup album, made harder to pigeonhole from the free-form ethos that all the Odd Future members add to their music(It’s great to hear Andre 3000 rap, and not have to add black-alternative wierdness, on the track “Pink Matter”). This genre specification is terribly important in toning down the hype; R&B is about being vulnerable and sensuous, not being the masculine and virile character that rap and hip-hop demands. Still brave, still groundbreaking even, but not like it would be for a hip-hop artist not a part of club scenes or the singular phenomenon of New Orleans “sissy” bounce.
Beyond the hype this is still a good album. I was never that compelled by just hearing the “gay” singles, but to hear the album from start to finish is to understand the singular development of Frank Ocean’s character; tragic love affairs that are/were worth the risk, a balance of nievete and immaturity, physical and chemical dependency The music has a regular palette of organ, strings, and hollow-body guitar, with syncopated drum and bass keeping the tracks grooving(also probably why this album is nominated in the nebulous “Best Urban Contemporary” category.
The worst song? “Super Rich Kids”, which is appropriate because it features Earl Sweatshirt, who says “faggot” so much that he falls flat rapping with an actual potential faggot. The best? “Monks”. Give it a listen.
2.From the Ground Up, John Fullbright
This album, in the full tradition of eye-rolling nonsense delivered by the Grammys, is nominated in the schizo Best Americana Album category Not in the Best New Artist category which he would win(his debut album), and not in the Best Country Album category even though From the Ground Up is more rooted in the traditions of real country music than any of the other nominees.
This album sounds like, if you don’t care to entertain this type of music, if Steve Earle performed a sequel to Red Headed Stranger, with Will Sheff writing lyrics about God, love, and the Devil.
But not derivatively so. Fullbright does so many subtly clever things that he makes his own musical footprint; the lyrical and musical nod to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in “Forgotten Flowers” is unobtrusive and eased in perfectly; the lyrical weight of the Randy Newman-esque tune “Fat Man” may sound simple at first, but the surprising use of gate reverb and vocal effects add gravity to the lyrical theme; God and the Devil are real characters throughout, but their existence is perfectly balanced out by the star-wishing painful narrative of the closer, “Song for A Child”.
I’m promoting whole albums in this writing, and I really recommend listening to From the Ground Up in whole to really appreciate the narrative arch, but at least watch this video for the country burner, “Satan and St. Paul”.
Then realize that he will lose to fucking Mumford and Sons. God damn it, I hate you, Grammys.
3. Based on a T.R.U. Story, 2 Chainz
There is no way to defend me loving this album. I’m not going to try.
People that know me know that I can really talk about good hip-hop to death, talk it into pieces like I’m talking about a calculus proof. Talk about assonance and consonance, about how the full sentences and thoughts can slide across the typical 16-beat phrases, talk about rhyme schemes, talk about why Lupe Fiasco is great and why Lil Wayne sucks so hard.
People that know me also know that I love me some full-on-stupid rap. Guilty.
Lupe Fiasco even has an album nominated in the same category (Best Rap Album), and I don’t care. The combination of over-the-top lyrics, the fact that 2 Chainz can’t seem to be bothered to consider even near rhymes in his couplets, and the spot-on production value is too good. I mean, this is a pretty special kind of horrible. I can’t help it. Sorry.
You should watch this video, though. It’s like if Tyler, The Creator directed “Crazy Clown Time”.
4. Black Radio, Robert Glasper Experiment
I feel like I could confidently throw the “neo-soul” badge at Channel Orange because I troll around neo-soul albums all of the time; I blame seeing Anthony Hamilton and Erykah Badu totally kill their respective musical spots on Chappelle’s Show. My music adventures into that genre, however, never directed me to a neo-soul album that I really liked more than rhythmically. Nothing really compelling.
Black Radio serves as the missing link for what my expectations were for neo-soul. Not that it is neo-soul. Man, I’m not sure what it is.
Robert Glasper is a jazz pianist. He normally performs with a trio(drum, bass, piano), but when they feel extra… something, they haul a sax player and become The Robert Glasper Experiment. And even if the trio(or the Experiment, for that matter) doesn’t make the kind of jazz you like, adding jazz chops, and the sensibilities that come with it, remove the flatness that neo-soul music normally keeps in order to help the vocalist shine and adds that compelling ensemble movement I thought I’d always find.
Black Radio is a concept album(and at it’s roots a jazz album, which is why it’s nominated for[all together now!] Best R&B Album); imagining African-American music of the future by offering up the past. Many of the album’s songs are covers; I wasn’t as put off by the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” cover(I mean, they let Leif Garrett do one) as I thought I might be. The one I was worried about, the cover of Sade’s “Cherish the Day”, was great. And to top it off, all the people that I’ve listened to trying to find music like this appear as guests, too; Erykah Badu is on it. Musiq Soulchild is on it. Me’Shell N’Degeocello is on it(you should be envisioning that scene in the bed at the end of Wizard of Oz now. But blacker. And not The Wiz).
It didn’t take a huge style change to make this music more interesting to me; the piano and drums are just freed up enough to surprise me with silence and rhythm. Listen close to both of those instruments in this song; it’ll be worth it.
5. The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do, Fiona Apple
Oh shit, here it is, the reason I hatefuck the Grammys every year: the potential of at least one beautiful thing to be either shockingly exalted or rudely, although predictably, brushed aside to the spoils of a popularity contest. And this year that reason is an album from Fiona Apple. Are you as surprised as me? I said “oh shit” and I meant it; I’m still surprised as I write this.
So surprised that I went back and listened to all of her other albums to figure it out. Was it me, and my tastes at the time those albums came out? I felt relieved when it wasn’t. The main reason is that there’s no identity or cohesion in any of those albums. They are all, including the reworked Extraordinary Machine, overproduced to death. Any attempt for the nuances of Apple’s voice to sound vulnerable gets drowned out and just comes off as moody and bratty; any attempt to have a chamber-music feel to her piano playing gets stomped on by all the other crud worked into the songs.
The Idler Wheel(I’m not typing the rest of that motherfucking title out) is just Fiona Apple’s voice, her piano, and percussion. I wonder if this was a risky choice for her, or even her first choice of instrumentation. However it was decided upon, the results are shocking and stunning. There is a creaky, ambient, and detuned sound to the whole album that would make Tom Waits jealous. If her voice sounded like a less-empty and more-angry version of Tori Amos before, on The Idler Wheel it sounds passionate and jagged, casual with the narrative lyrics but warble-y and growl-y when she needs to. Also, unlike Tori Amos’ piano playing, Apple’s piano in this stripped-down ensemble is percussive and jangly, a perfect accompaniment to her still-feminine voice and the striking drum ensemble. Things get loose in the album with tempo and time, with phrasing skips and surprise instruments spicing each track, less safe and predictable as, say, Tori A—
Sorry. Enough about Tori Amos. This is the 2013 Grammys! The appropriate, current nominee to slag on is Florence & the Machine.
Maybe “slag” isn’t the right word. But the album, Ceremonials, by Florence & the Machine, is nominated in the category of Best Pop Vocal Album. Ceremonials, much like Fiona Apple’s previous albums, is smotheringly produced. Listen to the song “Shake It Out”; in the beginning, if you can get past the similarities to Radiohead’s “Motion Picture Soundtrack”, the vocal mood and delivery have some promise. Then the drums avalanche in, the fake reverb and the overdubs smooth out any realness from the vocals, the organ sustains notes in the same frequency range as the singing… God, it’s too much. Yes, this is “pop vocals”, and yes, I really don’t care for pop music. but the potential of what Florence Welch’s voice could be gets buried in the attempt to produce something the kids will think is “epic”.
Not so in The Idler Wheel: every scrap of vocal is exposed, close-mic’d and breathy and vulnerable and beautiful. The vocals won’t even be given a chance to compete with other vocalists, though; this album has been relegated to the what-should-we-call-this-kind-of-musicness of the Best Alternative Music Album category, destined to lose to the aforementioned Tom Waits.
The Idler Wheel is ambitious and weird, artistic and lofty, the Comeback Album of the year. There’s not a Grammy for that, though. My guess is that there isn’t ever any Grammy for an album like this(to be fair, I didn’t think Arcade Fire or Bon Iver had a chance, either). I’ll be happy if she wins, but I don’t see it happening, and she deserves it the most. It’s little consolation to have more fuel for the Grammy fire. We’ll see. Enjoy this video, and wish her luck.