Starting All Over Again (After Another Paternity Leave)
Another whirlwind February, plus Forgetting to Vote for the Grammys, On the Stereo.
|Stephen Thomas Erlewine||Mar 17||1|
It’s been a while, so I’m going to clean house, catch up and hit the reset button on this newsletter.
This February disappeared the same way last February disappeared for me: I spent most of the month caring for a newborn daughter during her time in the NICU and through her first weeks back home. Compared to last year's NICU experience, this February was a breeze, lasting a third of the time and following a steady trajectory of improvement. Still, a week-long NICU stay is no fun, especially when juggling a toddler at home and just when we settled into a routine, the great Texan winter storm of 2021 hit. We were more fortunate than most but the twenty hours without heat or power were fairly harrowing thanks to a pair of infants. We got through it safely but it struck a blow to my listening and productivity. I don’t have guilt about that, I just have pangs of longing for a reliable work schedule.
I didn’t watch the Grammys this year. Worse than that, I'm a NARAS member who forgot to send in his ballot this year. Why did the Grammys fly under my radar in 2021? I'd blame most of it on having two infants during the pandemic but it's also true that my interest in the Grammys waxes and wanes over the years. Much of this is due to the vagaries of an industry awards show a production that is inherently more interesting when you’ve got some skin in the game. That might mean you’re in the running for a trophy, it might mean you’re invested in the music that came out in a given year. If you don't have that sort of attachment, it's easy to take or leave the Grammys, so I left it this year.
By all accounts, this year's production was a good television show, plus the winners do largely reflect a voting body who is attempting to reckon with where pop music’s center is at. The new establishment is already in place: Beyoncé will eclipse Quincy Jones as the most honored artist in NARAS history and Taylor Swift certainly has the time, momentum, and motivation to win a fourth Album of the Year Grammy. There are still silly things happening in the margins but apart from maybe Body Count taking home a Metal trophy there were no major embarrassments among the wins, which also invalidates the whining from The Weeknd about being snubbed. Grammys aren’t intended as rubber stamps of sales, they’re for presenting the stare of the industry and how it sees itself. That’s why Jacob Collier and Black Pumas get big nods when The Weeknd doesn’t: they’re part of the industry firmament, they play nice, they realize they’re part of a team that includes engineers, producers, managers—all the people that make the music biz hum along. And because those ranks include a bunch of people who will never have their faces in a prime time broadcast, I’m not sure if the Grammys can ever get hipper than they are now, nor am I sure if that’s wise. The Grammys should be just a bit square, they’re the establishment, after all.
Oh, the one thing that didn’t win that I wish did? Nat King Cole’s Hittin’ The Ramp: The Early Years 1936-1943, which should’ve taken home the prize for Best Historical Album. I’m sure my vote would’ve made all the difference.
On the Stereo:
Electrically Possessed: Switched On, Vol. 4
The fourth volume of Switched On arrives over two decades after Aluminum Tunes, a reflection of both Stereolab's extended hiatus and how the group's output streamlined in the 2000s. Electrically Possessed opens with The First of the Microbe Hunters, an EP released on a major label in 2000, then hopscotches through stray songs released and recorded between 1998 and 2008. Chronology is set aside in favor of flow, a move that also happens to emphasize how consistent the band was during this decade. Dialing back the volume and ratcheting up the groove, Stereolab wasn't as ambitious as they were during their mid-1990s heyday, yet they could hit the mark reliably, which is why Electrically Possessed satisfies even if it doesn't quite thrill.
For the Good Times: The Songs of Kris Kristofferson
Kris Kristofferson has his charms as a singer but a way with a melody isn't necessarily one of them. He wrote melodies other singers could inhabit, with vocalists from every genre imprinting their own personality on songs that became instant standards: "For the Good Times," "Help Me Make It Through the Night," "Sunday Morning Coming Down" and "Me and Bobby McGee." All of these are here on For The Good Times: The Songs of Kris Kristofferson, another volume in Ace's ongoing songwriters series, usually in versions that are slightly off the beaten track. Sammi Smith's "Help Me Make It Through The Night" opens the collection and save perhaps Kristofferson's own version of "The Taker" and Hank Williams Jr's "If You Don't Like Hank Williams," it's the only time a classic is presented in its big hit incarnation. The comp isn't obscure for obscurity's sake. Roger Miller's original take on "Me and Bobby McGee" sits next to Isaac Hayes' version of "For the Good Times," the hazily-focused country nicely complimenting the slow jam. A few cuts are of recent vintage but the comp is at its best when it sticks to Kristofferson's 1970s peak, as pop stars, rockers and country charted new progressive territory within his stories. My big discovery here is Donnie Fritts, Kristofferson's keyboardist who is present with a swampy version of "Prone to Lean," a song I learned last year via Bobby Bare. His 1974 album, which is also called Prone to Lean, is on streaming services and it's quite good, especially for anybody who likes Tony Joe White, Doug Sahm, Jim Ford and Dale Hawkins.
Shake Your Money Maker [Deluxe]
The proper album can be a bit stiffer in actuality than it is in memory, particularly on the deeper album cuts, but when it clicks it catches fire: "Twice as Hard" and "Jealous Again" are played with such offhand sleaze that it can be easy to overlook how well structured they are. The rarities and outtakes on the second disc are also hit and miss: a version of Humble Pie's "30 Days in the Hole" finds the Black Crowes lacking but the slow groove through "Jealous Guy" is inspired. The live disc is even better, capturing a band who just figured out what their strengths are and are happy to strut in front of a hometown crowd.
Stage Fright [Fiftieth Anniversary Super Deluxe]
I don't really buy that the rejiggered album sequence was the intended order back in 1970, not when the sides are swapped and shuffled. I also don't care for "The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show"—Robbie Robertson's corniest Americana fantasia this side of "The Last of the Blacksmith"—opening up the album, not when "Strawberry Wine" kicked things off in high spirits on the original. That said, the new sequencing may not add much to Stage Fright, nor does it hurt it: the album is a collection of mainly good songs given slick treatments by the Band and producer Todd Rundgren. It's a record that's lighter than either Music From Big Pink or The Band, a vibe that can be appealing on its own modest merits. The June 1971 live show added as an extra here is mighty fine, too, maybe the best representation of the Band as rock & roll road warriors.