[JPL] Herbie's Grammy

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Fri Feb 22 10:03:55 EST 2008


February 5, 2008

The Grammys Push the Glitz
February 5, 2008; Page D5

This year's Grammy nominations have the typical safe bets up in the
high-gloss categories: Beyoncé, Foo Fighters, Justin Timberlake, Rhianna and
Amy Winehouse, the nominees for "Record of the Year," have invested heavily
in creating images that extend beyond the music world, though in the
seemingly drug-addled Ms. Winehouse's case, it's a different kind of
investment. In the "Album of the Year" category, the nominees are Foo
Fighters, Vince Gill, Herbie Hancock, Kanye West and Ms. Winehouse -- not an
obscure name in the bunch.

As they're presented on Sunday evening, think of the top-of-the-lists
Grammys as awards for marketing and celebrity -- and don't ask why the
Oscars seem to get it right while the Grammys can't -- and you'll be a
little less frustrated when your favorite new album is ignored. Besides,
you'll find plenty of great rock and pop music down the list of 110
categories. Years from now, some of these albums will be acknowledged as
superior to the mainstream winners.

Take, for example, the "Best Electronic/Dance Album" list, which is
"Category 14 in Field 3 -- Traditional Pop" in Grammyspeak. All five albums
are worth celebrating, and while they pulse with deep electronic beats,
they're something other than soundtracks for raves. The Chemical Brothers'
"We Are the Night" (Virgin) and LCD Soundsystem's "Sound of Silver"
(Capitol) blur the boundaries between electronica and rock, while Justice's
"Cross" (Downtown) carries a touch of heavy-metal melodrama. Shiny Toy Guns'
"We Are Pilots" (Universal) is charming, mid-'80s-style pop, and at times
Tiësto's "Elements of Life" (Ultra) revives '90s disco.

"Best Bluegrass Album" (Category 43) and "Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album"
(Category 49) also show across-the-board quality. The Category 43 discs by
Cherryholmes, J.D. Crowe and the New South, Jim Lauderdale, the Seldom Scene
and Tony Trischka will please fans of country, folk and high lonesome
harmonies. And the Category 49 nominations salvage the otherwise odd choices
in the jazz areas.

"The Best Contemporary Jazz Album" category seems designed to honor smooth
jazz and electric jazz, but Mr. Hancock's very fine and mostly acoustic Joni
Mitchell tribute and Eldar's piano musings are here too. "The Best Jazz
Instrumental Album" list plays it safe by ignoring newcomers and the entire
ECM catalog. But the nominated albums by orchestras led by Terence
Blanchard, Bob Florence, Bill Holman, Maria Schneider and Charles Tolliver
are a joy, steeped in the tradition but distinctly modern and inventive.

Bobby Sanabria's delightful "Big Band Urban Folk Tales" (Jazzheads) -- which
takes on Afro-Cuban music, samba, blues and Frank Zappa -- would fit easily
in the large-ensemble category. But, in a move that feels like segregation,
it's in the "Best Latin Jazz Album" group, as are small combo outings by
Paquito D'Rivera, Sammy Figueroa and Hector Martignon that would appeal to
any fan of traditional jazz. The fifth album in the category, Steve Khan's
"Borrowed Time" (ESC), features Latin sounds on only some of its tracks; it
would have been a good choice as a contemporary-jazz nominee. The Spanish
Harlem Orchestra's "United We Swing" (Six Degrees) might have been a better
fit for Latin jazz or the big-band list, but it's in the "Best Tropical
Album" category.

TobyMac's "Portable Sounds" (ForeFront) is crisp, guitar-driven urban soul
that deserves a wider audience; an occasional mention of his faith places it
in the "Best Pop/Contemporary Gospel Album" category. The "Best Traditional
Gospel Album" list is a mixed bag of gospel styles. Smokie Norful's fine
"Life Changing" (EMI Gospel) could easily have been slotted with pop gospel,
and in a just world, the Clark Sisters' "Live -- One Last Time" (EMI Gospel)
would be nominated as "Best R&B Album." It's as much soul music as it is
music for the soul.

To be cited in the "Best Reggae Album," it helps if you've been around for
several decades. The nominees include Burning Spear, Lee "Scratch" Perry,
Sly & Robbie's the Taxi Gang and Toots & the Maytals -- all of whom have
been recording since the early '70s, if not before. The fifth nominee is Bob
Marley's son, Stephen. You'd be forgiven if you have the feeling that not
much thought went into putting together that list.

The "Best Contemporary World Music Album" list is similarly disappointing,
but for different reasons. While mainstream pop fans show a lack of passion
for reggae's new artists, their interest in other forms of world music --
especially modern, genre-bending African and Brazilian sounds -- is high.
Yet the nominations in the category are surprisingly routine: "Momento"
(Crammed Discs) by Bebel Gilberto, "Gil Luminoso" (DRG) by Gilberto Gil,
"Djin Djin" (Razor & Tie) by Angelique Kidjo, and "An Ancient Muse" (Verve)
by Loreena McKennitt fail to approach each artists' best work. The fifth
album, the eponymous "CéU" (Six Degrees), is the Brazilian musician's mildly
pleasing bossa-nova-meets-electronica debut.

No matter how hard one tries, it's next-to-impossible to make sense of some
of the Grammy nominations. The blues and folk categories read like they're
the place where American music that doesn't fit easily anywhere else is
tossed. Bettye LaVette's gritty "The Scene of the Crime" (Anti) received a
"Best Contemporary Blues Album" nomination, but it's not a blues disc, nor
is Eric Clapton and J.J. Cale's "The Road to Escondido" (Reprise). Tom
Waits's wonderfully eccentric "Orphans" (Anti) is in the "Best Contemporary
Folk/Americana Album" category, though very few of its 56 songs come close
to a reasonable definition of either folk or Americana. By the way, for some
reason there are only four nominees, rather than the customary five, in the
"Best Traditional Blues Album" group. Fans of that idiom could come up with
a few suggestions, I'd bet.

For me, it's unforgivable that Feist's extraordinary "The Reminder" --
lumped in with Ms. Winehouse's "Back to Black" (Universal) and bland discs
by Bon Jovi, Maroon 5 and Paul McCartney for the "Best Pop Vocal Album" --
isn't a nominee for "Album of the Year." At least she's up for "Best New
Artist," though "The Reminder" is her fourth solo album.

The Grammy folks caution that the new-artist category recognizes "the first
recording which establishes the public identity of that artist." But you
have to wonder who they mean by "the public." If it's industry insiders and
people who buy what's promoted most aggressively, you'll know why the
Grammys miss the mark about what's worth celebrating about contemporary
popular music.

Mr. Fusilli is the Journal's rock and pop music critic. Write to him at
jfusilli at wsj.com5.

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