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AudioFiles by SEAMUS GALLIVAN


Lousy 'Justification' for Grammys

                You know something’s wrong in Grammyville when Justin Timberlake gets nominated for “Album of the Year.”

                But I suppose we should know better than to think that the holy grail of music industry awards (Sunday, February 8th, 8:00pm, CBS) would be safe from the ugly “money first, music second” mentality that has the industry shoving garbage like Timberlake’s cheesefest “Justified” down our throats.

                Was the album successful? Of course. But nominating it for album of the year is like putting up Teen People Magazine for the Pulitzer Prize. Awards for records sales are given out by Billboard - the Grammys are supposed to be for actual musical excellence. Though any legitimate musician is likely numb from such insults, this slap in the face has got to hurt.

                “Justified” is not just any cheesefest, either. You know the kind of cheese with the plastic covering? This album is like that - only all plastic. One giant Michael Jackson impersonation. The Neptunes and Timbaland supply a good beat here and there, but on the whole, it’s sugar-coated schlock at its worst.

                But the president of the Mouseketeer Alumni Association   isn’t alone as an unworthy candidate in the lofty category of best album. Looking at some of these nominees gives me a bitter beer face, and it smells even worse, almost as if they were selected for the sake of TV ratings. Missy Elliott’s “Under Construction?” Give me a break - longtime producer Timbaland comes up with more fresh rhythms, but I’ve heard better rhymes at middle school talent shows. Evanescence’s “Fallen?” Love the voice, Amy Lee, but now that you’ve had some success, and you’ve been saved from “the nothing you’ve become,” how ‘bout cheering up a little? Sorry, I just can’t get with this all-consuming ball of desperate depression that so many in my generation curl into.

                                 The other two nominees, OutKast and the White Stripes, are deserving. OutKast’s “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below” is a monster - the maddening convergence of genres that Big Boi and Dre have made their calling fails to cease even as they offer dual solo albums, justifying their place at the forefront of forward-thinking artists on any scene. Flawless it’s not, but their ambition is fascinating - while Big Boi’s “Speakerboxxx” wears P-Funk on its sleeve, it’s merely a foundation; and as far as “The Love Below,” I don’t know if there is a foundation - many elements have a Prince-like soul to them, but Dre’s musical insanity is through the roof, exemplified by the hidden, explosively delirious cover of “My Favorite Things” sharing space with the ridiculously catchy “Hey Ya.” The term “musical kaleidoscope” has never made any more sense than when used to describe these two - call it progressive hip-hop.

                The White Stripes look farther back than forward, but Jack White’s down-home, friendly dementia has critics around the world frantically pontificating over their latest release, “Elephant.” The obsession with this obscure duo is mostly pointed at him - drummer and ex-wife Meg White keeps it so simple you wonder if she’s sleeping at times. Jack White’s style owes a lot to Blind Willie McTell, topped with some Led Zeppelin grandiose here and a little Sid Vicious swagger there. Being a huge fan of the bass guitar, I didn’t think I could get into their seemingly bottomless rock, but it works, and it works well. It’s simplistically innovative, and based on Jack White’s impressive crossover contribution to the “Cold Mountain” soundtrack, one reckons that he’s no flash in the pan.

                One of these two will surely win the award - critical salivations suggest “Elephant” - and based on the “ratings are everything” mentality, we can put the pieces together as to why the other three are there. Nominate Timberlake and you get the teenybopper demographic. With Elliott you get the hip-pop crowd that thinks OutKast is too far out there, and with Evanescence the ever-growing self-loathers. Or perhaps its their way of showing us their diversity, that they really have their finger on the pulse. But simply plucking from the top of the charts is more like diversity at the expense of integrity, and when is that ever a good idea?

                The three undeserveds, however, are considered favorites to receive a prestigious "Horse's Ass" award for musical mediocrity (February 21, 4:45am, C-Span 2), in the categories of Most Redundant Dance Song (Timberlake, "Rock Your Body"), Most Unreasonably Inflated Ego (Elliott - P. Diddy will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award), and Most Depressing New Artist (Evanescence). Good luck to all!

                In the meantime, below are my five favorite albums of the year.  I'm not cryin' snub for them, just highlighting those that moved me the most. Surely some great ones slipped under my radar - I don't pretend to have heard it all, as I'm plenty busy tracking down gems that were made before my time, but these five are rock solid, and well worth the investment.  


Seamus' Best of the Year


Lucky Peterson, Black Midnight Sun

                Born in Buffalo but now living in Dallas, Lucky Peterson is an amazing talent with the ability to wow crowds with his brilliantly soulful work on guitar, organ, and vocals. He lit up the Tralf last June with a dynamite performance that seemed to let out every inch of soul he had in him, and “Black Midnight Sun” is no different, certifying Peterson as Buffalo’s finest musical export. He drenches obscure covers with his signature soul stylings, while holding sacred the grooves of slicker-than-a-slicker funk standards. Peterson’s original tracks hover from the mellow soul of the title track, to cascading gospel in “Truly a Friend,” and high-steppin’ blues in “Change Your Ways.”

                In bassist/producer Bill Laswell and drummer Jerome “Bigfoot” Brailey, Peterson has a battle-tasted rhythm section that occasionally takes over, as in Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning,” a psychedelic rev-up that strikes hard, and with Henry Threadgill (who also oversaw the horn arrangements) and his flute hovering over it all masterfully, it’s safe to say that not since Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung” have heads banged so hard to a song with a flute solo.

                Peterson is a soul train clicking on all cylinders - do yourself a favor and get on board.


Jony James Blues Band, In This World

 

                It’s been said that blues guitarists are a dime a dozen, but Jony James’ rare combination of profoundly reflective original songs and jaw-dropping guitarwork is absolutely captivating. Regular readers of Audio Files (assuming there are any) are likely echoing the statements of many of my friends - “okay, Seamus, we know you’re all about the Jony James Blues Band, enough already.” But something ain’t right when they’re playing for bigger crowds on the road than they are at home, and I’m not the only one singing the praises of this album - it also made 2003 top five lists in the Detroit Metro-Times and Tumbleweeds Records in Niantic, CT, and is getting airplay not just coast-to-coast, but also in Australia and Italy.

                  Their third studio album (first under a label) is their finest to date, from the hard-hittin’ opener “Hit the Street” to the cool title track sign-off. In between, though the tempo frequently changes, James perfectly pilots the high performance rhythm engine of bassist Rod Horning and drummer Kent “Boom Boom” Leech. Whereas the stompin' scorcher "Voices" takes off with cloud cutting crescendos, the methodical "Time is All We Got (Or Haven't Got)" could rock a baby to sleep.

                While using the “H-word” should always be done with great caution, anyone who’s witnessed James blast off in a solo with Hendrix-like fire backs up the comparison. The Detroit Metro-Times’ Jeffrey Morgan took it even further in his review of the album - “Hell, I miss Hendrix too, ... [but] stop living in the past! Take off that copy of Nine To The Universe and listen to Jony’s panoramic “Don’t Let It Blow Your Mind” instead. Because there’s a new experience in town, and his name is Jony James.”

                And he’s never even seen them live.


Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Live at the Charleston Music Hall 

                I’m not sure that bluegrass music can be made any better than this album, which certainly earned its three Grammy nominations. Had I not seen them nail two shows with authority last May in the Bear’s Den at the Seneca Casino, I’d never believe that the album was recorded at just one show. Nine players plow remarkably as one at breakneck speed, led by the mandolin magic and hearty nasal twang of Skaggs, and backed by remarkable youngsters Andy Leftwich (fiddle) and Cody Kilby (lead guitar); grizzled veteran Bobby Hicks (fiddle); superb background vocals from Paul Brewster (guitar) and Darren Vincent (guitar & mandolin); Batavia’s Jeff Taylor (accordion, tin whistle); longtime Skaggs compatriot Mark Fain (upright bass); and four-time and reigning International Bluegrass Music Association Banjo Picker of the Year Jim Mills.

                If you already love bluegrass, you already have this album. If not, it’s a perfect introduction, featuring covers of forefathers Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, and Flatt & Scruggs, mixed seamlessly with plenty of originals. Every red-hot solo sparks the hootin’ and hollerin’ of a high country hoedown, and the slower numbers are no less impressive - sometimes light; sometimes deep; always moving.

                If there’s a better group of bluegrass musicians anywhere, they ain’t grazed my Yankee ears.


Warren Zevon, The Wind

 

                Warren Zevon was never afraid to sing about death, and “The Wind” is priceless proof that facing it wasn’t a problem, either. Told he had inoperable lung cancer and only months to live, he basically shrugged his shoulders, admitted he got what he deserved, and immediately went to work ensuring that he went out kickin’.

                Sticking to his guns, he looked back at his “Dirty Life and Times” and ahead to his burying ground on “Prison Grove” with the same striking wit than defined sardonic. The former tune, all country with the help of Ry Cooder’s twangin’ guitar and background vocals from Dwight Yoakam and Billy Bob Thornton, is full of his classic knack for one-liners, one favorite being, “It’s hard to find a girl with a heart of gold/when you’re living in a four-letter world.”

                There’s a hefty list of guests on the album - two of its five Grammy nominations are for the aggressive rocker “Disorder in the House” with Bruce Springsteen. The lone cover on the album, Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” is all too appropriate, and the power of Zevon singing “open up, open up for me” repeatedly over the chorus is chilling.

                The rockers are as edgy as the ballads are haunting, and his impending doom hovers over it all. He lost his battle just a month after the album's release, but despite such gravity, there's plenty of fun in the lyrics and music - the man goes out in style with a smile. Our buddies in Evanescence could learn a thing or two here. 


Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Greendale 

                First things first, this album will probably only do anything for those already on the Neil Young bandwagon. If that's not you, pick up "Everybody Knows This is Nowhere," "Harvest" - that's a start, but the guy's been making music for forty years, so there's a lot to cover. Once you've gained a respect for the man's vivid songwriting prowess, this veritable musical novel becomes much more intriguing.

                  A twisting tale about the paradoxes of 21st century life in a small, country town, Young wrote each song one at a time, not beginning the next until the first was recorded. The result is an album greater than the sum of its parts, thus requiring a full dive in to really appreciate it.

                As much as the story brings us onto the quiet porch of smalltown America, Young uses the characters to speak his mind about the fallacies of our apocolyptic administration, spitting scornful fire about the Patriot Act and the Enron-aided California energy crisis. He's said often in interviews that the unrest over Bush, Inc. has America at its ripest for political revolution since the late 60's, and those seeds blossom in Greendale.

                The whole thing is beautifully sloppy - the storylines, the playing of Young and longtime backing band Crazy Horse (minus Poncho Sampedro, who did perform on the tour), even the production suggests that the whole thing was thrown together pretty quick. But that's what we like about Neil Young & Crazy Horse - they're anything but polished. They don't call it "Live Rust" for nothin'.

                Hearing these songs for the first time while the band played them in front of a full cast acting them out onstage was amazing. Their July 4th show in Saratoga Springs featured, as did each show on the tour, the entire album, performed beginning to end, before a single familiar song was played. Gutsy move indeed, but Young will never take the easy way out - he's constantly pushing his music, refusing to rest on his substantial laurels. This will be a tough act to follow.

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