Okay, I know exactly why the Laurie Anderson/Kronos Quartet record won a Grammy: because it is awesome. But I wondered about the other winners, the ones that, of course, I had heard of (you’d have to be living under a rock not to have heard of them), but had never listened to. So, at Music Millennium a couple of weekends ago, the oldest independent record store in Portland, Oregon, and one of my favorite places on the planet, I did some record shopping, and in an unusual state of looking for nothing in particular, I decided in the end to buy albums from artists that, while having minimal interest in heretofore, won a Grammy, and thus earned the distinction of the I-should-probably-know-something-about-this-record award from yours truly. I bought two albums that weekend from such artists: “Anthem of the Peaceful Army” by Greta Van Fleet, and “By the Way, I Forgive You” by Brandi Carlile. It was actually a different album from Greta Van Fleet that had the honor of winning a Grammy, but this was their most recent thing and, I thought, should be most representative of what they’re doing presently. They won for Best Rock album, and Carlile won for Best Americana album.
Let’s talk about the rock. Greta Van Fleet are clearly superbly talented young musicians. There can be no doubt about that. They’re a tight band, each member obviously not just proficient but accomplished on his instrument. They’re all very handsome young dudes as well, and the fact that three of them are brothers ads a kind of irresistible adorability factor. They have all those things going for them. Again, I’m not listening to the record that earned them a Grammy, but the one immediately and closely after. Are the songs good? Yes, on the whole, the songs are good. Is this band Grammy worthy? I have a few concerns.
The buzz around Greta Van Fleet is that they are a 21st century Led Zeppelin. And at first listen, and second listen, and third, this comparison seems absolutely appropriate. The lead singer out Robert Plants Robert Plant. He’s probably more virtuosic than the original, but if at times while listening to this record you close your eyes (which is a very silly thing to say, as the music will sound the same whether your eyes are open or closed), you will think you are hearing a long lost but sonically superior Led Zeppelin song. It’s possible that this singer is just doing his own thing, and his own thing happens to sound like Robert Plant’s thing, but it’s also just as easy to conclude that this guy is deliberately aping the mighty 70’s hard rock singer. It’s that close. And because, stylistically speaking, everything about this record seems to be paying tribute to 70’s hard rock bands, it’s difficult to believe that these boys were not studying the Led Zeppelin catalogue while they were in their diapers. And when he doesn’t sound like Robert Plant, the singer sounds like Geddy Lee. And sometimes he sounds like Geddy Lee sounds like Robert Plant, you know, a là Rush’s debut record. And not only is his singing eerily similar to these two giants, but his lyrics seem also straight out of the “Misty Mountain Hop”/”Kashmir”/”Anthem”/”By-Tor and the Snow Dog” songbook. And I find them silly. Rush’s lyrics are also silly, but when I fell in love with them first I was in the seventh grade. I think this record would have been infinitely more interesting to me in the 7th grade. But while I’m listening and driving, I’m banging my head. I’m a 7th grader again.
I read that Alice Cooper also dubbed these guys the new Led Zeppelin, and said they were doing a tremendous service for guitar rock in the 21st century, and if you love the Zep and wish they were still making records, I suppose Greta Van Fleet will satisfy those desires. My feeling is, yes, that could be a very good thing, but their stuff is super derivative, not original or groundbreaking in the slightest, and, I guess, not very interesting to me outside of its rocky goodness (no small potatoes), and perhaps, if it were my decision, Greta Van Fleet would not be worthy of a Grammy. Nevertheless, I like this record and will listen to it a bunch more times likely before I tire of it.
Let’s move on to the Americana. First of all, what the hell’s Americana music? I’ve only been hearing this term for the last six or seven years, have played with musicians who consider themselves playing in this genre, but I’m still not completely sure I know what it is. But apparently though, it’s so much a thing now so as to have its own category of awards at the Grammys. So let’s look it up, shall we? From wikipedia:
Americana is an amalgam of American music formed by the confluence of the shared and varied traditions that make up the musical ethos of the United States, specifically those sounds that are merged from folk, country, blues, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, gospel, and other external influences.
The definition on AmericanaMusic.org is super similar, but they’ve added this little nugget, which I find instructive, that while Americana draws from all these other genres, it results “in a distinctive roots-oriented sound that lives in a world apart from the pure forms of the genres upon which it may draw. While acoustic instruments are often present and vital, Americana also often uses a full electric band.” What I find kind of funny about these definitions is that they seem to fit almost any musical outfit that is cross-pollinating genres. How “distinctively roots-oriented” could you get while playing around between six or seven different traditions–how could that be “a world apart”? I don’t have anything against artists and musicians who are not squarely in a particular camp, if fact, I admire that kind of thing, I’m just having difficulty deciding if Americana is an actual genre or whether it’s just a label we use when we can’t describe the genre but nevertheless decide that it feels genuinely American. Sidenote: listen to Elton John’s
“Madman Across the Water” and tell me that that record sounds British. I dare you.
So Brandi Carlile won the best album award in the category of Americana for “By the Way, I Forgive You”. What intrigues me about my response to this record is that, while it is a type of thing stylistically that I would be usually much less interested in than I would be in a record from, say, Greta Van Fleet, I like Carlile’s album a lot more than I like “Anthem of the Peaceful Army.”
At first, its decidedly country influence out of the gate puts me off some. Typically and with few exceptions, I do not favor country music. I especially do not like contemporary popular country music. Brandi Carlile’s voice is unabashedly a country sounding voice and the first tune on the album, “Every Time I Hear That Song,” seems to me an unabashedly country song. But she is none of the things I hate about country, and while I’m not a huge fan of that opening track, “The Joke” is something different altogether. This thing is an anthem. It’s got tremendous power, lyrically and musically. The first time I heard the song, I almost wept. In fact, in every subsequent listen, I can feel that tug. One of these times I think I’m going to have to let loose. It’s like the “We are the Champions,” the “Shout,” or the “We Are Young” of Americana. This is one thing that makes this album significantly different and better. Brandi Carlile is an ADULT and she’s writing very seriously about serious adult things; there’s no ice and snow in fairyland here (not that there’s anything wrong with that). And the music, if it’s intended to be roots oriented, seems to me at times much more sophisticated, more progressive. Check out that third tune, “Hold Out Your Hand,” a tune with a jaunty little bluegrass verse that busts into a kind of slamming, again anthemic, four on the floor stomp swing in the chorus and culminates in this shouty, chant-like spoken word thing, coupled with one of those nonsensical background vocal hooks worthy of The Beatles. And, country twang or no country twang, Carlile is a powerful and interesting singer.
Americana? I guess so. There’s country here, blue grass, folk, rock, etc. Rootsy? Okay, but there’s orchestration on this album as well, beautiful and lush string orchestration, and that don’t strike me as rootsy. She sounds like Elton John trying to sound like an American. Maybe “By the Way, I Forgive You” is an Americana record simply because it defies easy categorization. That’s okay. I’m easy. Is it Grammy worthy? I think if it can make a 54 year old man want to cry, sure. Give this record a Grammy.
Postscript Ramblings: I’m kind of jonesing to get back to my alphabet project, the game of listening to a single album by every artist represented in my compact disc collection in alphabetical order and then writing about it. I started this project years ago, only got half way through the letter H, and then stopped. Mostly it’s because I cannot stop buying new music and new music listening seems to always take precedent. And I’ve spent lots of time listening to “new” music by artists that I’ve already written about in the alphabet, namely, rediscovering the entire early catalog of Bowie and the entire entire catalog by Kate Bush. And I’ve been listening to a lot of vinyl. And I’ve been discovering, like I have above, other new things that have ere now been completely out of my wheelhouse: Solange, Childish Gambino, Anderson .Paak, Richard Hawley. I have to forgive myself for being distracted by so much good music pulling me away from the alphabet. I’ll get back to it some day, maybe someday soon. If this appeals to you, let me know.