Sunday night’s Grammy awards were touted as the night America would be introduced to a pop-skewing, Americanized, thumpy version of “dance music.” But Dave Grohl had other ideas.
Grohl was one of the artists who took to the stage for three performances Sunday night, two with his band of rock survivors Foo Fighters and one as part of a show-closing jam where a gaggle of the older white men who had appeared earlier in the evening—Bruce Springsteen, Paul McCartney, Joe Walsh—displayed their chops while playing the medley from Abbey Road. (Bonnie Raitt, herself a guitarist with fairly substantial bona fides, was a startling omission from this salute to the past, as was the night’s big winner, Adele, who, though not a six-string whiz, surely would have given a fantastic assist on vocals.) He also took some time during his acceptance speech to rant a little about trends that he considered troubling.
Accepting the award for Best Rock Album for Wasting Light (RCA)—which he recorded with the help of his old pal Butch Vig—the former Nirvana drummer said: “This is a great honor because this record was a special record for our band. Rather than go to the best studio in the world down the street in Hollywood, and rather than use all of the fanciest computers that money can buy, we made this one in my garage with some microphones and a tape machine.” (How tricked-out that garage is, he didn’t let on.)
He continued: “To me, this award means a lot because it shows that the human element of music is what’s important. Singing into a microphone and learning to play an instrument and learning to do your craft, that’s the most important thing for people to do. It’s not about being perfect; it’s not about sounding absolutely correct; it’s not about what goes on in a computer. It’s about what goes on in here [the heart] and what goes on in here [the head].” He probably would have talked longer, but his speech was cut off from the viewing audience by the bully-club keyboards of LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” and the ever-smiling, overemployed Ryan Seacrest.
It was an odd outburst, though one in keeping with the unspoken themes of the night; the show promised to be a step into the future, with performances by Nicki Minaj and various dance producers heavily hyped in the run-up. But it was bracketed by veterans. In addition to the Beatles tribute closing the show, Bruce Springsteen opened it with his Magnetic Fields-gone-Obama-rally anthem “We Take Care of Our Own.” And the Next Big Hope Adele, whose music won all three of the genre-agnostic categories it was nominated in (Record, Song, and Album of the Year) is, while a spellbinding performer with an undeniably heartbreaking voice, definitely a throwback to the Dusty in Memphis era.
Grohl didn’t steer entirely clear of newfangled fakery. Foo Fighters’ second performance was part of an oddly sequenced “tribute to dance music” which had his band sharing the stage with the mouse-head-wearing Canadian DJ Deadmau5. After the Foos blazed through their track “Rope,” Deadmau5 took over, and the cameras happily cut to Grohl, wearing a Slayer T-shirt and a blazer and a shit-eating grin, jerking his body to the beats and drops emanating from the stage. But Grohl’s tirade about machines and imperfections made me wonder if he’d heard the new album by his fellow grunge-era refugee Mark Lanegan, Blues Funeral (4AD); the imperfect and human are placed side-by-side with the mechanical on the album, and the results are often arresting.
Lanegan’s voice was one of the more distinctive of the alt-rock era, its weariness telegraphing itself from note one. It’s a cracked instrument made even more stunning by its wear and tear, like those super-high-definition photographs of people that don’t get airbrushed, that instead show the lives the subjects have lived by exposing and even highlighting every wrinkle and mole and imperfection. In the early ’90s, his former band Screaming Trees’ bombastic alt-era classic “Nearly Lost You” flirted with MTV notoriety; its placement on the soundtrack to Cameron Crowe’s love-in-the-time-of-grunge chronicle Singles introduced the band to more casual fans of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, and it’s one of that album’s most indelible tracks. Lanegan’s burr grounded his band’s thick cloud of feedback and snaky, Hendrix-inspired guitar line; the wistfulness with which he sang the chorus’s first words right before the riff came blasting in tugged at heartstrings.
Blues Funeral (credited to the Mark Lanegan Band and produced by Alain Johannes) has a couple of tracks that hew to familiar rock templates. On “St. Louis Elegy” Lanegan moans over a shuffling riff and subtly threaded organ line; “Gray Goes Black” is a desolate tune for a nighttime drive, its shadowy guitars recalling the mournful AM-radio pop of years ago and the gloomy goth tableaux of the Cure. Yet what makes the album on the whole work so well is the melding of new wave ideals and his worn, wounded instrument. Although there are traditional “rock” tracks, some of the album’s most stunning moments come when his voice collides with the synthetic. “Ode To Sad Disco” combines a sad shooting-star guitar line with a methodical dance beat that sounds inspired by the DFA catalog; “Harborview Hospital” has a synth-spangled outro that brings to mind New Order getting lost on a dancefloor, and it could probably extend another eight minutes past its four-and-a-half-minute cutoff point and still be absolutely mesmerizing; the stomping “Quiver Syndrome” places Lanegan’s voice alongside a sparkling pop chorus reminiscent of the Dandy Warhols’ most decadent tracks. Throughout, the lyrics chronicle pain and sadness. Despite the mechanics at work, there’s no party rocking happening, let alone enough to warrant an apology.
Perhaps Grohl was ranting against common ideas of what pop is right now—the Auto-Tuned straw women who lurk around every corner, waiting to have the melismata they can’t hit in live sessions manipulated into existence by masterminds with supercomputers. Blues Funeral, though, shows how the imperfections of man and the shortcomings of the machine can blend into something beautiful, a piece of art that heightens and highlights the humanity at its core.