Fuck the Grammys, man.
The first part of this week’s column will upset Josh Rogers, my friend in England. He writes, “I enjoy your columns more when you’re not wasting your breath on things that will never be less stupid than they are.” That’s a fair point. The Grammys, and in fact most awards shows, will never be less stupid than they are. It’s a failing of my character, I guess, that ignorance makes me mad, and supposedly authoritative ignorance makes me self-righteous. The next few paragraphs are a full-on bitch session, and if you don’t feel like reading someone raging against something that will never be less stupid than it is, you can join Mr. Rogers in skipping about 400 words. (Sorry for the unintentional children’s television joke there…)
So, as I said, fuck the Grammys, man.
The Academy made a few major mistakes along with the usual slew of minor ones. First, it was insulting enough to Shelby Lynne to nominate her for Best New Artist after six albums and 13 years in the biz, but to actually award it to her was just silly. She handled it well, and doubtless she’ll never get this much nationwide attention again, but really. That’s like naming John Glenn Best New Astronaut.
Of course, I’m most upset about Steely Freakin’ Dan. Even if you disagree with my assessment of Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP as album of the year, you had to be surprised at the Academy’s conclusion. Two Against Nature was the weakest album of the lot, exhibiting zero artistic growth from the duo’s last album in 1979. Even Radiohead’s Kid A showed more daring and musicianship than Steely Dan’s effort. Sadly, Dan had the safest album of the lot as well. Leaving Eminem’s foul-mouthed role-playing aside for a second, both Radiohead and Beck made culturally warping works aimed at the fringe, and Paul Simon presented a sparkling, mature record that taxed those with limited attention spans. Two Against Nature was the easy-listening, soft-rock cop-out that the Academy seems to need every year.
But then they went and made a huge deal about Eminem’s performance on the show, going so far as to have the president of the RIAA introduce him with a stirring speech about freedom and artistry. That speech alone made the three-hour broadcast worth watching, and the performance that followed was simple and understated, a refreshing change for the Grammys. All the press marveled at Eminem’s restraint. What did they think he was going to do, step to the mike and say, “Thanks for the fuckin’ Grammy, and by the way, I hate gays?” What the hell are they so afraid of? Awarding The Marshall Mathers LP Album of the Year wouldn’t be an endorsement of its content, just of the artistry that went into crafting it. Or something like that, since I’m paraphrasing, of course, from the RIAA president’s speech. The Academy’s learned to talk the talk, and now they need to learn the other half of the cliche.
Okay, Josh, you can start reading again.
I first heard the Dave Matthews Band in a record store. I was browsing, and every once in a while my ear would be drawn to some snatch of melody or tone color from the speakers. I didn’t think much of it until “Jimi Thing,” track nine on DMB’s studio debut, Under the Table and Dreaming, started up. I’d never heard anything quite like it, and I bought the record at once. This was two months before “What Would You Say” burned up the airwaves, and until that happened, I never imagined the Dave Matthews Band would be stars. They were too quirky, too organic, too musical to make a dent in the charts.
Silly, silly me.
Eight years into a decidedly unorthodox superstar career, I still don’t see the Dave Matthews Band as your typical popular act. Their lineup has always been acoustic guitar, bass, drums, sax and violin. Their songs have often twisted into 10-minute workouts that made you sweat just listening to them. Three years ago they put out the second-best album of 1998 with Before These Crowded Streets, a huge, sprawling mess that showcased just how good these musicians really are. In fact, it’s been my experience that the Dave Matthews Band has spent most of their career being underrated because of their chart success. Streets was like a mission statement – “Yeah, we’ve had four top 10 hits, and all the women love us, but listen to this.”
Three years later, and DMB has just released Everyday, the album on which they’ve decided to start playing down to expectations. They’ve hooked up with human hit factory Glen Ballard, the guy who made Alanis Morissette into a household name, and they’ve discovered the electric guitar. The result is a fuzzed-out short pop album chock full o’ number one singles. The unfortunate side result is that it sounds anonymous. While there are only a few groups on the planet who could have played the songs on Streets, on Everyday they sound like just another band.
Ballard co-wrote all the songs with Matthews, and you can hear his touch all over this thing. The arrangements are thick and oversaturated, especially when Ballard piles on the synths and drum programs. (Yeah, electronic drum patterns, the current alt-rock rage. My feeling is, if you have Carter Beauford for a drummer and you use a drum machine, that’s an incredible waste of resources. That’s like landing John Coltrane for your jazz ensemble and having him play the triangle.) The songs all revolve around verse-chorus-verse flowchart patterns, and almost every track ends abruptly, as if the band kept playing for three or four minutes after Ballard chose to stop the tape. No song breaks the five-minute mark, which by itself isn’t a bad thing, but many of the songs are too weak to even sustain five minutes.
“Sleep to Dream Her,” for example, is the first DMB song I’ve ever found myself fast-forwarding through. It’s one part reggae and two parts crap. I never again want to hear a song called “Angel,” especially one this trite and boring. I also never want to hear another song sung from the point of view of a child asking his parents why the world is a mess, like “Mother Father.”
There are some good moments on Everyday, though when I first heard “I Did It,” the now-ubiquitous single, I never thought it would be one of my favorites. Sadly, it is, even though it bores me to tears. The second single is supposed to be “The Space Between,” an infinitely better song. I’d have preferred the stripped-down arrangement the band played on Saturday Night Live to the over-produced version on the album, but it’s a nice tune. So is “If I Had It All,” the album’s one moment of musical and lyrical depth. “Fool to Think” allows the band to strut their stuff, if only for four minutes, and its time signatures are pretty cool. (Standard four-four cuts to a chorus in nine-eight without missing a beat.) The closing title track is hummable and pleasant as well.
Still, most of Everyday is only one or two steps removed from later-period Sting. The tragedy is that there’s another DMB album, one they had completed before scrapping it to revamp their image and work with Ballard. One hopes that the unreleased effort holds all the musicianship and energy that Everyday is missing. Chances are this album will do very, very well sales-wise. It’s just discouraging that after eight years of outplaying their chart brethren, the Dave Matthews Band has chosen to prove all their detractors right.
I’ll be back in praise mode next week, with a surprisingly good disc that just came out. At least, I was surprised. Thanks to everyone who’s written me, and I’ll try to send replies by the end of the week. Honest, I’m just really busy.
See you in line Tuesday morning.