Friday, February 24, 2012

"Everything is black and white and grey..."

 The Fray - Scars & Stories
Epic Records, 2012
3.5 stars

Seven years ago (shit, that makes me feel old), The Fray burst into the mainstream music scene with How to Save a Life, an album that spawned a slew of popular radio singles and pretty much immediately made them the posters boys for the type of melodic piano pop that served as the soundtrack for shows like Grey's Anatomy. That association was a blessing a curse for the band, as it pretty much immediately skyrocketed them to stardom but also caused a lot of people to write them off early on. I thought How to Save a Life was a solid record, not a great one: I loved all the singles ("Over My Head," "How to Save a Life," "Look After You," "All At Once"), and a few of the album tracks ("Vienna," especially), but overall, it was a record I felt I outgrew quite early, and judging by the fact that the band's album sales have been dropping with each release, I probably wasn't the only one.

Despite this, The Fray have quietly become one of the most dependable bands in mainstream pop-rock, releasing a self-titled record three years ago that not only had one of the best lead-off singles of that year ("You Found Me"), but also a slew of terrific tracks, especially the closer, "Happiness," which has since become a favorite song of mine. With their third (and arguably best) release to date, The Fray make no attempt to reinvent the wheel, but they come up with their best set of songs to date and with an album that feels decidedly more mature and unified, both in sound and theme. The album's biggest triumph comes in the form of "Munich," a sweeping display of power balladry with a immense chorus. The song contains elements of many of their previous songs, but also adopts a wider array of influences (with U2's presence being the most palpable), and producer Brendan O'Brien makes it sound as huge as it should. I never felt like O'Brien was the right fit when he worked with Springsteen, but he may just be the perfect match for The Fray, as he brings a more definitive rock edge in their sound and makes the band sound bigger, better, and more muscular than they ever have on record. Look no further than first single and album opener "Heartbeat," a driving rocker which sports one of the best hooks I've heard all year, or "The Fighter," where the album's increased emphasis on guitars is perhaps the most evident.

"Run For Your Life" is yet another killer single from a band with a history of them, while "The Wind" juxtaposes beautiful verse melodies, distant backing vocals, and a truly gorgeous falsetto release. I've always liked frontman Isaac Slade's voice, but he sounds better than ever on this record and especially on this song, making it one of the absolute best moments of the record. Similarly breathtaking is "I Can Barely Stay," the album's obvious centerpiece ballad and the song most destined to become a soundtrack staple. O'Brien outfits the tune with an army of strings that are massively appealing, but I almost wish he'd just left the it alone, since I'm certain it would function just as well in a stripped down format, just Slade on piano and vocals. That's only a matter of preference though, and the strings give the song an undeniably yearning and epic feel. Guitarist Joe King takes over vocals on "Rainy Zurich," and much like "Ungodly Hour," the song he sang on the previous album, it's a highlight, with a pleasant downpour of pianos and guitar accents forming an evocative background.

In between the ballads and ready-made radio songs, The Fray experiment a bit with more tempo driven, guitar reliant rock songs, and although the results are somewhat mixed and these songs don't end up being the best moments of the album, they do give it a nicely paced flow. How to Save a Life had great singles, but suffered from a drop-off of quality between those and the album tracks, which were basically just less interesting versions of the hits. Luckily, that's not the case here: "Here We Are" wouldn't have been out of place on the last Switchfoot record, while "48 to Go" is almost begging to become a road trip rocker, and "Turn Me On" is good on record, but sounds like it would be absolute dynamite in a live show, with a chorus ready to be shouted by a venue full of fans. Meanwhile "1961" felt relatively unremarkable until I listened to the lyrics, which tell the story of two brothers who find themselves on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall, unable to reach each other. "But it won't be the same again," Slade sings on the song's refrain, his voice breaking into a lilting falsetto in such a heartbreaking manner that the song worked its way into my brain more and more with each listen. The record closes with "Be Still," a lullaby of a piano ballad that is carried forth by a keyboard that delays and echoes through an empty space, joined only by ambient strings, to haunting effect. As it should, the focus stays with Slade's voice until the end, and even though it isn't quite the closer "Happiness" was, it ends the album with a stark sense of finality.

Scars & Stories came together during an extensive period of traveling that the band took prior to re-entering the studio. They wrote over 70 songs for the project, and the record represents the very best of them, songs that only depart slightly from the band's established musical style, but songs that are informed by world issues and experiences. As a result, this material feels distinctly weightier and more mature than previous efforts, and the songs feel more like they are part of a single journey or arc. As the album's throwback artwork implies, The Fray set out not to make a collection of singles, but a full album, and the accomplishment of that goal is rather easily their best record to date. Landing somewhere between the piano pop of Jack's Mannequin and the increasingly classic rock driven sound of Augustana, Scars & Stories is the sound of a band that is growing and improving with each record, and I think someday, they're going to make something that's really great. With this record and the last one under their belts, they're well on their way.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

This Highway's Home: Will Hoge Live in Grand Rapids

The Will Hoge Band
Live at the Pepsi Stadium Club - Fifth Third Ballpark
Grand Rapids, MI, 2/09/12

Will Hoge's music has saved my life, on numerous occasions. That might be a bit of an overstatement, but I can't do justice to how much his records, especially the last three, have meant to me over the past couple of years. On my list of all time favorite artists, only Will Hoge and Chad Perrone have come into my life since I started college. The other ones, the ones who have released truly terrific records since 2009, the ones who have big potential to be on that list, still have another album or two to go before I'll feel comfortable giving them that distinction. I think that really speaks to the power, the immediacy, and the strength of Hoge and Perrone's music, both the albums that made me fall in love with them and the back catalogs that turned me into a die hard fan. Both have songs that have completely leveled me at some time over the past three years. Perrone's music served as soundtrack for the best summer of my life, for the first time I fell in love, while Hoge's has helped me through some difficult moments: he was there with The Wreckage in the fall of 2009, supplying the musical backdrop to my first semester in college and for the transition therein; his latest, Number Seven, simultaneously drove me to tears and inspired me on the night last fall when I first started to consider pursuing a different major; and Draw the Curtains has always been my favorite and has been a record I've returned to for answers, for comfort, and for inspiration time and time again over the years. So after all that, it was a dream come true finally getting a chance to see Hoge play a live show. To put it simply, I wasn't disappointed.

Hoge, who is currently touring in support of last fall's Number Seven, made a stop in Grand Rapids two Thursdays ago, playing in a reception venue off of the Fifth Third Ballpark (which took the title of "weirdest place I've ever seen a show" pretty easily). The opener for the show (who I gathered was not actually on tour with Hoge and his band, but a Grand Rapids native who was offered the slot separately), was the acoustic duo of Flashing Blue Lights. Their set was intimate and laid back, establishing a nice coffee-house atmosphere with their pleasant originals and recognizable covers. After the band had played a Noel Gallagher song ("If I Had a Gun") and a Ryan Adams one ("Two"), my brother and I started taking bets as to what would be covered next: I guessed Counting Crows. I wasn't too far off, as the band bid farewell with a nice rendition of the Foo Fighters' "Next Year."

Hoge and his band are unique in the artists I've seen in that they have no road crew. The band was out onstage, setting up their gear, doing sound check and tuning their instruments, and once they were ready, they just walked out and rocketed into the first song of their set: "Fools Gonna Fly," also the opener off Number Seven and one of my favorite songs on that record. The song's singalong chorus proved to be the perfect orientation to Hoge's live sound. The band was clearly on point from the get go, and lead guitarist Adam Ollendorff immediately distinguished himself as one of the best guitarists I've seen with any band, a title he'd defend on numerous occasions throughout the night. "Secondhand Heart" reminded me why I need to give Blackbird on a Lonely Wire, Hoge's second (or third? I'm really not sure of this) record, more credit, and "Sex, Lies, & Money," a big, dumb, blues-rock song with shout-along lyrics, was a no-brainer for a live set, even if it is probably the weakest song off of Hoge's masterpiece, Draw the Curtains. As for "Too Old to Die Young," which capped the near-perfect four song introduction, the song cemented itself as an anthem as I sang along with it at the top of my lungs, and it was easily one of the Number Seven cuts that thrived the most in its live setting.

The band broke for a few moments, allowing them to tune their instruments, grab a drink of water, and banter with the audience a bit. Hoge explained to us that the name of the town on the setlist tonight was "Cold Ass, Michigan," and added that his band would be compiling a database of setlists from this tour so that when they come back, they won't play all the same songs. It's an interesting idea that I wish more acts would undertake, though to be honest, if I've seen Butch Walker seven times and have never minded seeing songs multiple times, I doubt I ever will. "I'm actually here for a baseball tryout," Hoge laughed, riffing for a moment on the curious venue we'd all found ourselves in. He went on, explaining the initial confusion he'd encountered in regard to the White Caps, the team who plays at the Fifth Third Ballpark. "At first I thought your team was called the White Chicks," he said. "That would have been way cooler. It would have been awesome to say I was the pitcher for the White Chicks." As laughter washed over the audience, Hoge walked around to the back of the stage and sat down at his piano, launching into a raw and visceral take on "When I Can Afford to Lose," the opening track from Curtains. It's a song I've always liked, but it soared even higher in this environment, distancing itself from the production values of the studio and allowing Hoge's exquisitely moving vocal to radiate through the venue.

After an extensive anecdote about a show he played recently at an all girls catholic school and his penchant for offending nuns, Hoge played through a pair of sparse acoustic numbers: the first was "Trying to be a Man," a tragic storyteller song from his latest album, the second "The Wreckage," a meditative break up tune that also probably had some connection to the near-fatal motorcycle accident Hoge suffered prior to the recording of the album the song lends its name to. The band added musical flourishes to both pieces, but for the most part, both achieved the "pin drop" dynamic amongst the audience, and only exemplified Hoge's magnetic and entrancing ability as a performer. The silence was not prolonged, however, as the band rocketed into "Ms. Williams," one of two songs tonight from the Carousel album, and one of the few songs of the night that I felt less familiar with. The opening riff to "Highway Wings" sounded like a summer anthem waiting to happen, and the band built around that euphoric opening to create one of the absolute highlights of the night. "Highway Wings" is a song I've always loved, but I've also always felt that the studio version on The Wreckage doesn't nearly do it justice, that the production doesn't make it sound as anthemic as it should. However, hearing it live only doubled my adoration for it, and I hope someday, we'll see a live album with the more recent stuff on it, that song included.

Speaking of songs that found new life in their live formats, "Just Like Me," a Tom Petty-ish rocker, became even more scorching here as Hoge channeled all of his anger and bitterness into the lyrics and left them dripping off the stage. "Silver Chain," a darkly atmospheric rocker from Seven reached heights I never thought possible, with Ollendorff delivering an extended guitar solo that was nothing short of mindblowing, and "Pocket Full of Change," a commentary on the music industry that served as the opener for Hoge's 2006 album, The Man Who Killed Love (another one I think I'm guilty of underrating), tore the stage apart with raucous energy and rock 'n' roll charisma. Hoge took center stage with an acoustic again for "Goodnight/Goodbye," a song from The Wreckage that was instrumental in making me love his music in the first place. It's a heartbreaking song that tells the tale of a couple who have fallen out of love with each other, but aren't willing to face that truth. While the original version is enhanced with elegiac piano lines and a gorgeous female back-up vocal, the song cut right to the core of me tonight, stripped down to its barest essentials, and as Hoge's voice broke on the bridge, I couldn't think of many songs that are sadder.

"This Highway's Home" has long been one of my favorite Hoge songs, and the Draw the Curtains closer was more than flawless tonight. It's probably one of Hoge's most definitively country songs, name-dropping Hank Williams in the chorus as a stunning pedal steel guitar floats through the entire thing (delivered perfectly by Ollendorff). As I watched Hoge and his band play the song live, I gained a new appreciation for it, because really, this song is their theme song: these guys are working musicians, no major label behind them, no road crew to set up their shows, and not even an opening act to keep them company on the road. Hoge drives the band from show to show in a beat up old van, and none of them probably ever get a good night's sleep. And yet, despite all of this, here they stood before me onstage, giving every bit of themselves to these songs and to their audience. So when Hoge sang that last chorus, it really hit hard:

"With a suitcase full of empty dreams
A guitar with broken strings
A busted heart that longs to sing the blues
A mind that always leads me wrong
A head full of Hank Williams songs
I'm sorry honey, but this highway's home."

It's like Hoge and his band have no choice but to give themselves over completely to the music, because they can't imagine doing anything else, because nothing else would ever feel right, and as someone who has certainly felt that way in moments of his life, that idea really resonated with me. It was the night's key moment, but there were still a few more to go: Hoge appropriately segued into a snippet of the Hank Williams classic "I'm So Lonely I Could Cry" before exploding into "Goddam California," another one of the highlights of Number Seven and of the night. The song's bridge is one of the best parts of any song Hoge has written, and hearing him sing it live only made that more evident. "No Man's Land" didn't come across quite as strongly, but the clever tongue in cheek lyrics made it a welcome enough inclusion. And the a guy standing a row or two behind my brother and I asked the band to play "Better off Now That Your Gone" for his "bitch ass ex-wife," and Hoge happily obliged, dedicating the kiss-off anthem from Blackbird on a Lonely Wire as such.

In the past year, Hoge has been invited to play at the Grand Ole Opry on multiple occasions, and he introduced his final song of the night by explaining that the band had been trying to get back to the Opry's roots, which were in music that was performed entirely acoustically. The "house lights" (if you can call them that in this venue) went up and the band unplugged their instruments, jumped down from the stage, and walked to the center of the room. The song of choice was "Washed by the Water," yet another Draw the Curtains classic, and one that Hoge wrote for the people of New Orleans following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina (think Springsteen). The song has always been a favorite of mine, but seeing him perform it in a format that almost no live acts ever attempt made it completely transcendent. Whether it was the tweaked chorus harmonies (which I'm almost certain were a clever nod at "The Weight," a classic tune by The Band), or the way Hoge closed his eyes as he played, even as he was surrounded by dozens of fans and listeners, it was a breathtaking moment, and while the lack of a traditional encore was slightly disappointing, I could think of no better way for the band to cap off such a stellar show.

I've always felt that Hoge was a musician from a different era: he's a troubadour and a storyteller in the truest sense of the words, and tonight, he reminded me of many of the great songwriters that came before him. On Draw the Curtains, Hoge broke down the barriers between himself and his audience, baring his soul and delivering something that was so relentlessly honest and so palpably visceral that it struck a chord with me right from the get go: he did the same thing onstage at this show, and even after I'd waited two years just dying to see him live, he still exceeded my expectations. It's a shame Hoge isn't more popular than he is, because I can't think of many artists of this era with more great albums, more perfect songs, or with more of a tendency to leave everything they have on the table, whether it's on an album or as part of a live show. But the fact that this show was probably the smallest I've ever attended, in terms of audience size, that information only served to prove two key points: one, that Hoge and his give their all during every performance, no matter the circumstance, and two, that they're the single best kept secret in music today, and I'm just thrilled to be in on it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

"This is it, boys, this is war - what are we waiting for?"

fun. - Some Nights
Fueled by Ramen/Nettwerk, 2012
4.5 stars

Over the past few months, fun.'s "We Are Young," the first single off of their fantastic sophomore album, has been infecting mainstream music in ways that music by bands I love very rarely does: a prominent feature spot as the coda song of a Glee episode, a fantastically well positioned Super Bowl ad, and plenty of facebook statuses quoting the lyrics. A few years back, after my first listens to the gloriously strange pop record that was Aim & Ignite, I can't say I would have envisioned fun. as a mainstream pop act. No doubt, the songs were terrific, from the explosively catchy "Be Calm," to the gospel-infused "Benson Hedges," to the "Boys of Summer" reference at the end of "Walking the Dog," all the way to the Lion King-esque chants at the start of the epic closer, "Take Your Time (Coming Home)." To this day, I don't quite know how to describe the overall sound of Aim & Ignite: Glammy rock? A rave-up block party of musical influences? Some bizarre combination of circus music and alternative rock? The most straightforward song on the record, the lyrically driven love ballad "The Gambler," probably provided soundtrack for a lot of blooming relationships (including my own), but I could never have imagined hearing even that on mainstream pop radio.

Despite all this, when fun. started blowing up with "We Are Young," it really did make sense, because the song, regardless of the band's debut record, is a bonafide anthem in a time of far too few: it's a chorus just begging to be shouted by a crowd in any environment, from a college party to a huge music venue, and it is a song that a lot of people are going to identify with. Frontman Nate Reuss is no stranger to big choruses: he wrote one of the most infectious of the past decade on  "The First Single (You Know Me)" with his previous band, The Format, and he loads this album with so many of them that "We Are Young," while a terrific song, is hardly even a standout. 

The opener, the "Some Nights Intro" (strangely titled, since it's almost two and a half minutes and could easily have been a standalone song), builds from the sound of a broken down piano into a Queen-aping power ballad. Reuss sounds so much like Freddie Mercury here that for a moment, I almost expected a classic-rock record, but the band has other things in mind. The title track, with another killer chorus and a terrific delivery from Reuss, is an early contender for album highlight, while an autotune breakdown late in the song indicates the direction that this album is heading in. Ahhhh, autotune, such a ubiquitous, and yet widely misunderstood, tool in today's music industry: most mainstream pop music is positively drenched in it, always made more obvious when those artists perform live and a trainwreck ensues (several examples could have been found in last week's Grammy ceremony). Still, even the most talented singers in the industry tend to use autotune, mostly due to the fact that we as listeners have come to expect perfection in our studio recorded albums. Recently, a wave of T Pains and the like have given autotune a more gimmicky application, and fun.'s record uses it as such here, but it's done in a way that suits the songs and one that results in a record that is a true sonic feast. Make no mistake, Reuss is a terrific vocalist (for proof of this, look no further than "Carry On," another infectious pop song that would function just as well in a stripped-down acoustic arrangement as it does on record, with bass and heavy drum machines buffing up the sound). Even for those who have trouble getting used to the autotune as a part of this band's sound, by the time "Some Nights" explodes into a climactic spoken word section, I have a feeling they'll be hard pressed to care.

On my first listens to this record, I couldn't help marveling at the classic pop melodies Reuss and co. seem to come up with so easily: melodic verse lines and irresistible choruses that are so instantly memorable that I found myself wondering how no one else had stumbled upon them yet. "Carry On" is certainly one; "Why Am I the One," with an intro guitar part straight out of a Modest Mouse song and sweeping chorus harmonies, is another. "All Alone" and "All Alright" defy their titles, with the former being a ridiculously catchy pop song that's destined for a more than a few dance-in-the-car moments and the latter being one of the album's more subdued numbers (subdued being a relative term). "I've got nothing left inside my chest, but it's all alright," Reuss sings, over a bed of pianos, synths, bass and a choir, and surrounded by a massive wall of pop production. Much like Mat Kearney did with Young Love last year, Some Nights takes what is more or less fun.'s traditional sound and filters it through a more beat heavy, hip-hop influenced production. The result is a record that will prove polarizing among fans, but one that I think is ultimately more rewarding than the band's debut. 

That said, Some Nights isn't free of miss-steps, and when they occur, it's more the fault of the production than it is the songwriting. "One Foot" is a perfect example: it's a good song that circulated in a live version prior to the release of the record, but it doesn't quite gel with the studio arrangement or production. The song is still more than worthwhile, but there's a definitely sense that it could have been something greater. Elsewhere, "It Gets Better" is a textbook example of filler, a throwaway track with a grating chorus that steals a spot that would have been much better occupied by "Out on the Town," the album's "bonus track" and one of the best songs here.

Ultimately, the proper closer, the seven-minute "Stars" will epitomize everything that fans of the album love about it and everything that detractors think is wrong with it. In my eyes, it's the high water mark for the album: a masterfully climactic blend of pop, the band's alt-rock roots, hip hop and electronic music that serves as the perfect showcase for Reuss's vocal talents, the band's new musical direction, and the album's undeniably impressive production work. While it begins as a fairly straightforward pop-rock song, "Stars" builds into a haze of auto-tune and heavy beats, climaxing with a euphoric chorus of vocodor-enhanced voices. "No one's gonna save me now," Reuss sings, and despite the fact that his voice is layered with production and altered ten times over from its original state, it's the most vocally cutting and emotional moment of the album: even after a dozen listens, chills still run down my spine at that moment, and that alone is enough to make me a champion of the electronic influences the band adopts here. 

Just as the album began in Queen territory, it finishes thoroughly enthralled in the influence of Kanye West, whose 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy served as the band's primary influence throughout the recording process. That album's co-producer, Jeff Bhasker, masterminds the sonic orchestra on display here, and Reuss and his vocodor carries the album out in a way that very much recalls West's "Runaway," another epic song that the band actually covered on their last tour. That song and album's influence run rampant throughout the entire record, supplemented here and there by hints of Bon Iver (also involved with Fantasy and another figure who's been redefining what autotune can do), or by the eternal presence of classic pop acts like the Beatles and the Beach Boys. The resulting album sounds as fresh as it does musically-referential, and despite the fact that many fans of fun. and the Format will probably find the pervasive hip hop and electronic motifs jarring, in time I think this record could easily be regarded as the album where one of the best bands working in the industry today rightfully rose to the top. Who knows, if these guys get a few more big hits under their belts, maybe a Grammy could be in their future. And while, in light of the new Bruce Springsteen album (which is a masterpiece--more on that later), I can no longer say what I initially wanted to about this album (that it's the best thing I've heard all year), it's certainly a more than worthy runner up, and I'd be willing to put money on it ending up somewhere in my top ten at the end of the year. There will inevitably be cries accusing the band of "selling out," but as long as their doing so sounds this good, all the more power to them.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Grammy Post

There aren't a lot of hardcore music fans that take the Grammy Awards seriously these days, and it's not terribly difficult to figure out why: the Grammy Awards have always been a chance for the music industry to pat themselves on the back, often awarding the albums that spawned the most pop hits, or handing out sentimental trophies to old veterans or recently departed legends to pay tribute to them. There is nothing wrong with this practice as, it's worth noting, the Grammy Awards have rarely handed the Album of the Year prize to a legitimately bad album. Indeed, a handful of my all time favorite albums have won the prize, from The Joshua Tree to Rumours to Sgt. Pepper. That said, the Album of the Year award's history, for the most part, is a study in curious decisions. Like the fact that the Beatles only won the award that one time, or that Bruce Springsteen lost to Lionel Richie in the year that he took over the world with Born in the U.S.A. (or the more depressing fact that Born to Run didn't even score a nomination). And recent years have seen the award go to either country-pop crossover stars (Taylor Swift, the Dixie Chicks) or to legendary figures in music (Ray Charles, U2, Allison Krauss, Herbie Hancock): none were poor choices, but it would be hard to argue any of them as the best album released in their individual years.

I really thought that last year, Grammy had turned a corner. Rather than handing the Album of the Year award to a huge seller (Eminem's Recovery) or a newly minted pop music icon (Lady Gaga's The Fame Monster), the Academy opted for Arcade Fire, a critically acclaimed indie-rock act from Canada, and their concept album The Suburbs. In my eyes, that victory was truly magnificent: rather than going for something that was just a collection of singles, the Academy went for a true album, with recurring themes, sounds, ideas and characters. In an age where many have proclaimed that "the album is dead," that album defended the format, and it proved why it not only works, but why it will always be more artistically relevant than the single. Those people who were championing the rise of the digital single as the predominant musical format do have a point, though, since iTunes has indeed rendered the album obsolete to casual listeners. But it's still Album of the Year that is announced at the very end of the Grammy ceremony, and Arcade Fire's victory last year, backlash and all, was a poetic defense of the format that has defined the music industry since the 60s.

After that, I must confess that this year's nominees disappointed me a bit, even though two of them landed on my best of the year list. Still, the Academy is likely to avoid adding to their list of "curious decisions" this year (unless you count the nominees, which no one seems to remember after the fact anyway). Below, I list my thoughts on the nominees for the evening's biggest categories, as well as my reasons for tuning in again this year (however distractedly) and my predictions. (Spoiler: Adele).


1. Record of the Year

Adele - "Rolling in the Deep"
Bon Iver - "Holocene"
Bruno Mars - "Grenade"
Mumford & Sons - "The Cave"
Katy Perry - "Firework"

Will win: "Rolling in the Deep"
Should win: "Holocene"

A lot of people don't understand the difference between the Record of the Year and Song of the Year categories, but really, they're miles apart. One is simply about the songwriting at hand, while the other is awarded not only to the performing artist, but also to the producers, sound engineers, and other important team members who turned it into a stellar recording. As a result, Record of the Year is far more in recognition of the studio work done on a song than it is of a particular performance, unless the artist someone like Butch Walker who writes, performs and produces the track, which doesn't usually happen in mainstream pop music, and as a result, doesn't usually happen in this category. This year, though, there is one artist in this field who did all of those things, and the resulting recording is one of the most outstanding achievements in production of last year. That artist is Justin Vernon, the mastermind behind Bon Iver, and his song, "Holocene," which builds from a simple acoustic arrangement into full band ambiance. It's not the most sonically spectacular song on the album (that title would belong to one of the album's bookends, but it is, fairly easily, my favorite work here. That said, "Rolling in the Deep" is the biggest hit and will walk away with this category fairly easily. I'm fine with that, since producer Paul Epworth (who also worked on Florence + The Machine's Ceremonials), did some of the best production work of the last year.

2. Album of the Year

Adele -21
Foo Fighters - Wasting Light
Lady Gaga - Born This Way
Bruno Mars - Doo Wops & Hooligans
Rihanna - Loud

Will & Should Win: 21

Now here's an embarrassment of a category. I had high hopes for this year's album of the year slate after the Academy defied the pop music world and gave the award to a record that not only had no hits, but a record by a band that many Grammy viewers had never even heard of. The ensuing backlash was one of the funniest things I've ever seen take place on the internet, and caused me to lose any faith I had left in the music consumerist population. This year's category could have been a really killer one too, with all of the records from last year that gained a ton of critical acclaim and a fair amount of success (Bon Iver and M83 come to mind), not to mention a handful of leftovers from the previous year, like Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which earned perfect scores from nearly every publication known to man and will likely go down as the most well received album of this decade. And it must be good, because I even like that record, and I've never enjoyed another rap album in my life. Or there was Taylor Swift's Speak Now, which actually does appeal to the pop music listener to me, and is a superior album to the one she won the prize for just two years ago. Kanye will get a consolation prize in the rap album category, but Swift isn't up for anything big tonight.

The biggest waste of a nomination here is for the Bruno Mars record, which I can say from personal experience is terrible. The singles are the only tracks worth hearing at all, and even those display pretty much every pop music cliche in the book. I've never liked Rihanna either, and I'd be willing to wager that her albums are just vehicles for a handful of chart topping singles, and are loaded with filler, but I've never listened to an entire Rihanna album, so I guess I will never know. And even my girlfriend, who loves Lady Gaga, couldn't find much to enjoy with Born This Way, though I personally find it to be a better than average pop music album with a couple of killer songs ("You & I" and "Edge of Glory") closing it out. The latter, which features a self-referencing saxophone solo from Clarence Clemons, was the last song the virtuoso ever recorded or played live, and is the kind of sonic feast that should absolutely be up for Record of the Year.

That said, the other two albums on this list both made my top 25 of last year, and both are terrific. Foo Fighters made their best album in at least a decade with Wasting Light, where the band sounds loud, rejuvenated and nostalgic, all while delivering some of the best tunes of their career. It's all water under the bridge, though, since Adele will win this category by a landslide, and it really is a deserved victory. Not only is 21 the best selling album of the last year (and it just recently had its strongest week of sales, almost a year after its release), it has also unleashed three terrific singles ("Rolling in the Deep," "Someone Like You" and "Set Fire to the Rain") and has truly moved a lot of people. The album's pop drenched break-up songs recall one of the best Album of the Year winners in the award's history: Fleetwood Mac's near perfect masterpiece Rumours, and I can easily see 21 becoming that album for this generation. I've heard way better break up records, but to hear pop music this great captivate the entire world in the way it has is a real triumph, and its hard to remember a winner of this category that defined its year more than 21 has. 

3. Song of the Year

Kanye West - "All of the Lights"
Mumford & Sons - "The Cave"
Bruno Mars - "Grenade"
Bon Iver - "Holocene"
Adele - "Rolling in the Deep"

Will Win: "Rolling in the Deep"
Should Win: "Holocene"
A long list of songwriters marks this album's one miss-step, proving that sometimes, too many cooks really do spoil the broth. That song is "Grenade," one of the most cliched and grating pop songs, not only of this year, but in the history of pop music. Rebecca Black's "Friday" is a better song.

The rest of the category is actually pretty stellar (or as stellar as a Grammy category can get), though "All of the Lights" is a better record than it is a song, I think: there are far better songs on that album. I'm glad to see Mumford & Sons up for these awards, although the album "The Cave" comes from released in 2009 and really shouldn't be in contention for an awards show taking place in 2012. "Holocene" and "Rolling in the Deep" round out the nominations, with the former being the better song (Pitchfork agrees), but with the latter taking the prize. I'd argue "Someone Like You" will prove to be Adele's trademark (and her most iconic hit), but "Rolling in the Deep" was a hell of a breakthrough.

Best New Artist
The Band Perry
Bon Iver
J. Cole
Nicki Minaj

Will & Should Win: Bon Iver

This category is one of the biggest jokes in any awards show, as they routinely nominate artists for their sophomore album, or in some cases, much later. One of the funniest occurrences of this took place in 2004, when they nominated Fountains of Wayne for the award, following their one hit wonder success with "Stacy's Mom;" the band had been together since 1996.

Anyway, the obvious outlier here is Bon Iver, who released his first album under that moniker in 2007, a year before Adele released her debut, even though she won this same award three years ago. Regardless of the questionable way in which these voters define the word "new," it's better late than Bon Iver, who completely steamrolls over everyone else in this category. The Band Perry had a pop gem this year with "If I Die Young," but even attempting that holds a candle to Bon Iver's near perfect record is laughable.

Best Rock Song/Best Rock Performance

Coldplay - "Every Teardrop is a Waterfall"
The Decemberists - "Down By the Water"
Foo Fighters - "Walk"
Mumford & Sons - "The Cave"
Radiohead - "Lotus Flower"

Will & Should Win: "Walk"

People have trouble differentiating Record and Song of the Year, but these two categories are, right down to their nominees, exactly the same. Certainly one of the stronger categories of the night, with the Decemberists sneaking in with a solid track from their great record The King is Dead. Foo Fighters should be sitting pretty here, though, with both the best song and the only Album of the Year nomination backing it up.

Best Rock Album
Jeff Beck - Rock 'n' Roll Party Honoring Les Paul
Foo Fighters - Wasting Light
Kings of Leon - Come Around Sundown
Red Hot Chili Peppers - I'm With You
Wilco - The Whole Love

Will Win: Foo Fighters - Wasting Light
Could Win: Jeff Beck

This category often turns either into a consolation prize for a could be/should be album of the year winner (Quentin Tarantino presenting it to Green Day in 2005, when they had the best record but it didn't matter in the midst of the Ray Charles tributes) or part of a sweep on the way to the big prize (U2 taking it for the terrific How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb the year later). This year, I'm going with the consolation prize theory, as Foo Fighters have no chance at Album of the Year, but could do pretty well here. The questionable spoiler is Jeff Beck, a virtuoso veteran paying tribute to a recently departed figure of rock 'n' roll evolution. I'm split either way, but it's actually a really solid category this year, so I'm less inclined to care.

Best Alternative Music Album

Bon Iver - Bon Iver, Bon Iver
Death Cab For Cutie - Codes & Keys
Foster the People - Torches
My Morning Jacket - Circuital
Radiohead - The King of Limbs

Will & Should Win: Bon Iver

This is often one of the better categories of the night, and while I think this slate is less inspired this year, the fact that it's one of the bigger categories the Bon Iver will likely pick up keeps it on my list of ones to watch. 

But all of these categories and predictions aside, the real reason I'll be tuning in is quite simple: Springsteen and the E-Street Band will be performing. And really, I'm hoping for a Clarence Clemons tribute, though it seems likely he might get a bit upstaged by the recent passing of Whitney Houston. As predictable as that is, and as great as Whitney's voice once was (I'm pretty sure it wasn't anymore...), she didn't create the most perfect two minutes in the history of rock and pop music...
But Clarence Clemons? Yes, yes he did.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Albums Revisited: Ryan Adams - Heartbreaker

Ryan Adams -Heartbreaker
Lost Highway Records, 2000

I've been on the biggest Ryan Adams kick this past week: playing old favorites, rediscovering albums I always left underrated, digging deeper into his catalog towards the stuff I never gave a fair chance to, and scouring the internet for all the odd b-sides, sessions and unreleased albums that he's recorded over the years. This kind of thing often happens after I see a band live for the first time, but with Adams, it's like I'm tackling the work of 3 or 4 artists at once. This guy has so many different sides and sounds, and like I said in my live review, has got to be the most prolific singer/songwriter of the past decade or two. He's like Dylan back in his glory days, or Springsteen around the Darkness/River period, leaving a plethora of songs unreleased for decades at a time.

I've never spent as much time with the Whiskeytown material as I should. Ryan's solo career is such a vast undertaking in and of itself that I've never delved very far beyond that. Many music critics (Pitchfork being the most obvious), would argue that Ryan never made a worthwhile album after his solo debut, the sparse, Nebraska-esque Heartbreaker. Interestingly, this record is far from my favorite thing that Adams has done, but I can certainly understand (and agree with) the praise. Like all Ryan Adams records, I think there are a handful of throwaways, and they're positioned about Heartbreaker's in such a way that I've never really been able to get into it as a whole. That said, when the record gets things right, it gets them very right. The proper opener, "To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)," is pretty much the closest anyone has gotten to replicating the Highway 61 era Dylan sound, and it's really no surprise the song became such a soundtrack staple in the years following the release (high class art films from Old School to Accepted used the song at key moments).

Beyond that one song, I've never felt that Adams' veered too much into Dylan territory on this record. The loud, electric opening gives way to an album full of thoughtful, broken-hearted, stark acoustic songs, and they showcase Adams at his best, if not musically, then at very least lyrically. No example is better than the gorgeously fragile "Oh My Sweet Carolina," where he duets with Emmylou Harris, herself an alt-country legend, over the greatest verses he's ever written. Seriously, who else was writing lines like these in the year 2000? Lines like: "I was spending money like the way it likes to rain," or "I ain't never been to Vegas, but I gambled up my life," or "The sunset's just my lightbulb burning out." Harris's vocals float through the background, combining with the lyrics to make a song that is both thoroughly haunting and indescribably beautiful. I have a theory that Conor Oberst was trying to recreate this song when he wrote "Landlocked Blues" (from the 2005 Bright Eyes album I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning), which also featured an artist at the top of his game, lyrically, and also featured Harris on back-up vocals. In a big way, Wide Awake works as a companion to this album, so maybe that's why I've always been so drawn to both of them at similar times in my life. And both records are ones that I was unsure about on my first listen.

Despite the fact that Heartbreaker has always felt a tad uneven and incorrectly sequenced to me, the number of truly great songs here cannot be ignored. Most of the record is understated, low-key acoustic guitar songs. It's always amazed me how broken and bare Ryan's voice sounds on songs like "Call Me On Your Way Back Home" or "In My Time of Need," but then he can turn around and deliver something like "Be My Winding Wheel," which is really just a perfect pop song in acoustic/alt-country dress, or "Come Pick Me Up," which is pretty much the ultimate break-up anthem. And that a record that starts with such a lively rock song ends with something like "Sweet Lil Gal" is mindblowing to me. "In the field where the plane went down..." Ryan repeats over and over again throughout that song, his hushed vocals and a distant piano laid bare over the powerful imagery. Every time I listen, that song just makes me want to press play all over again