Walter Tunis: Let's hear it for Grammys' noteworthy but unheralded nominees

Contributing Music WriterJanuary 23, 2014 

Neko Case is at least one critic's pick to win the Grammy for best alternative album for The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight; The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You.



    Amanda Shires at Willie's Locally Known: Given its high level of sketchlike immediacy and often atmospheric intimacy, this performance came very close to fading into the woodwork.

    Pockets of talkative, inattentive patrons within a capacity Saturday audience initially suffocated the subtle tone of the Texas guitarist/fiddler/songsmith's hour-long set. As such, the delicate fractures highlighting the show-opening The Garden (What a Mess) were largely lost, as was the vibrancy of the following Bulletproof, which favored a more folkish, elemental sway over the noirlike twang and shuffle established on Shires' fine new Down Fell the Doves album.

    But when the chattier audience members refused to yield to a between-song story Shires offered about her grandmother's effect on the singer's use of profanity onstage, she retorted, "Hey, my grandma stories are better than your grandma stories." With that, a handful of noisemakers departed and a more engaging air of quiet greeted such loose but restless songs as Stay, Devastate and When You Need a Train It Never Comes.

    As with Bulletproof, the songs sounded more sparse — but still spacious — than their recorded versions. The resulting ambience was nicely embellished by Shires' only onstage bandmate, bassist and harmony vocalist Stephanie Dickinson.

    Discreet flourishes that regularly revealed jazz and classical references distinguished Dickinson's playing. But she was also a resourceful and intuitive foil for Shires' craftier tunes. A wonderful case in point came when Look Like a Bird was pared down to airy, open singing and Dickinson's assured groove.

    Such moments made one wish Shires would curtail the more rambling extremes of her stage banter or play a longer set. Some of the stage talk was entertaining enough, especially a story that outlined her infatuation with the '90s Sir Mix-a-Lot booty anthem Baby Got Back, which prefaced her own Shake the Walls. Too often, though, the chat was less grounded and at times disrupted the show's intimate feel and flow.

    Shires' songs were all arresting. Why spend so much of the night on idle talk when you could be showing off more music?

56th Annual Grammy Awards

8 p.m. Jan. 26 on CBS.

The relevance of the Grammy Awards as any kind of honest assessment of the state of popular music fell away years ago. And yet every winter, they return as part of a barrage of awards programs designed so every branch of corporate popular culture can promote and congratulate itself simultaneously.

Similarly, every year I promise myself not to watch the Grammys telecast. It's not intended as some sort of smug, self-important boycott but as a determined attempt to ignore the Grammys.

But then I watch. I get sucked in.

It could be the occasional oddball performance pairings (jazz giant Chick Corea sitting in with Foo Fighters) or upset wins (Esperanza Spalding beating out Justin Bieber for best new artist two years ago).

But the end product — specifically, the Grammys' finale awards — always seem so trivial. That is less a reflection of how dreary and increasingly disposable contemporary pop music has become as it is an admission of how narrow the scope of recognition has always been for the Grammys' governing body, The Recording Academy.

But the curious thing is that the Grammys as a whole always have acknowledged a large spectrum of contemporary and classical music. It's just that the less visible and more commercially obscure awards never seem fit for prime time.

So here is a look at four intriguing Grammy categories, their nominees and possible winners — categories you can pretty much bank on getting little or no mention during Sunday's telecast.

Best alternative album

Nominees: Neko Case, The National, Nine Inch Nails, Tame Impala, Vampire Weekend

This is an apples-and-oranges (and, in a few instances, bananas) category that uses the empty, outdated tag "alternative" as a sort of purgatory for en vogue acts with greater critical appeal than commercial visibility. Regardless, the regal Case's The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight; The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You is the pick of this clearinghouse lot.

Best jazz instrumental album

Nominees: The New Gary Burton Quartet, Terri Lyne Carrington, Gerald Clayton, Kenny Garrett, Christian McBride Trio

Jazz categories tend to fare nicely at the Grammys. Burton, Garrett and McBride are all worthy winners. But let's go with vibraphonist Burton, the elder of the bunch. His Guided Tour is the latest in a string of strong recordings that continue to highlight the interplay of younger-generation players.

Best American roots song

Nominees: Sarah Jarosz, Steve Earle, Tim O'Brien and Darrell Scott, Edie Brickell and Steve Martin, Allen Toussaint

Jarosz, Earle and Toussaint provide expert entries. But the clear choice is the O'Brien and Scott composition Keep Your Dirty Lights On, a plainspoken commentary on the modern-day practices of ol' King Coal. That's a topic Kentucky native Scott, who wrote You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive, is fully versed to speak on.

Best Americana album

Nominees: Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, Mavis Staples, Allen Toussaint

It would be great to see the great New Orleans song stylist Toussaint walk away with this for Songbook, his splendid solo piano career retrospective. A great second choice would be Miller and Lauderdale's Buddy and Jim. But it's hard to imagine the Grammys passing over Old Yellow Moon, Harris' spirited reunion album with one-time Hot Band mate Rodney Crowell. Still, that's a winner we can all live with.

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