Grammy Aftermath

Last week's Grammy awards showed a marked (and misguided) straying from their named purpose — giving out awards. Many of the major rock and pop awards were given out offstage to make room for more performances by nominated artists. Is this an awards or variety show?

I wanted to hear former Creedence Clearwater Revival leader John Fogerty accept his award for Best Rock Album, not see Aretha Franklin try to mouth Pavarotti, as much of a novelty as that might have been.

But the Grammys are always an enigma. This year's awards seemed rooted in nostalgia, celebrating two generations of Dylans in various award categories, a 20-year-old rewritten Elton John song, a comeback album by CCR's Fogerty, a duet from stalward bluesman John Lee Hooker and '60s rocker Van Morrison and another by '70s folkie James Taylor (how the heck was this even listed in the Best Pop Album category?) When you figure in multiple (though non-winning) nominations for Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, Aerosmith and Fleetwood Mac in a year when none of them put out seminal work, it's readily apparent that the 1998 Grammy awards were a playground for the old, not a rewarding system for the current trendsetters.

Oh there were a few newbies recognized; out of a handful of nominations, Paula Cole managed to take home one award for Best New Artist, Radiohead surprised by earning Best Alternative Performance and Fiona Apple earned a trophy for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance. But the Song and Record of the Year were both taken by Shawn Colvin, a longtime rock 'n' folk veteran and, it needs to be said: Bob Dylan simply isn't vital enough these days to take — let alone get nominated for — two major awards. Album of the Year? Maybe back in 1968...Maybe next year they'll give out a special award celebrating Prince's "1999." It'll be old enough by then...

  Getting Irish Early...
Two popular traditional Irish bands make stops in Chicagoland next week in support of new albums and anticipating St. Patrick's Day. Cherish The Ladies, a band of first generation Irish-American musicians, singers and stepdancers has been touring the country for the past decade and stops in Skokie at the Center East on March 6 in support of their fifth and latest album of traditional Irish music, Threads of Time on RCA...Altan, a traditional Irish band actually based in Ireland, has just released their second album, Runaway Sunday, on Virgin Records. The band, which also features female jig-friendly vocals, will play Chicago's Vic Theatre on Saturday, March 7.


In an Instrumental Mood...

A handful of instrumental albums crossed my desk this week, and while I often find such "new age-y" albums a cheap substitute for insomnia medicine, I don't have negative things to say about any of these! Ray Lynch, a new age synthesizer-based instrumentalist who has sold a couple million copies of his four albums (largely on the basis of Deep Breakfast and No Blue Thing) has released a Best Of set on Windham Hill. It features selections from all of his discs, as well as a couple new tracks and both the original version and a remix of his best known song, "Celestial Soda Pop" (a bouncy synth-based gem that has a hook very reminiscient of Blondie's "Call Me.") With bubbly keyboard workings that call to mind Jean Michael Jarre and Vangelis in particularly jaunty moods, this is a great album for laidback listening — headphones are recommended...

On the opposite side of the sans vocal fence, Windham Hill also offers Sounds of Wood & Steel, a warm acoustic guitar collection that begs for firelight and a cold glass of beer or wine. Included are songs from Michael Hedges, Clint Black, Vince Gill, Leo Kottke, Will Ackerman and more. This is a late night lyrical album of strumming and light melodic string picking by some of the best purveyers of acoustic guitar music today...

A more adventurous instrumental release comes from Virgin Records in Instrumental Moods. This disc moves from the smooth jazz piano and sax solos of 3rd Force to the evocative, heavily layered dancy exoticism of Enigma to the Spanish guitar of Ottmar Liebert — a tour de force of musical styles just in the first three songs. Also included are spicey outings from Cusco, Santan, Massive Attack, David Lanz and Eric Johnson. This is one instrumental album that you'll have a hard time falling asleep to...

Who would have guessed 10 years ago that a video game could spawn a soundtrack album?!! Well, Riven, the sequel to the popular CD-ROM game Myst, has done just that. And it's a much more intriguing listen than a collection of "Donkey Kong," "Space Invaders" or "Pacman" bleeps and bonks would have been. If you've ever played Myst or Riven, you know what to expect — slow, eerily percussive, heavily layered washes of synthesizer sound effects. Some of the pieces, composed by Riven and Myst co-creator Robyn Miller, have been expanded from their original Riven versions, so anyone who's played the game and loved the ambient background music will definitely want to seek this out. It's relaxing in a vaguely disturbing way. Try cleaning the house to this or listening to it late at night and you may find yourself looking over your shoulder now and then.

Los Umbrellos
Flamenco Funk
½ stars

"Sweep," the reggae-rap-dance opener to Los Umbrellos' debut may carry the fresh breath of spring into the '98 music scene. This song (a tongue-in-cheek political warning to "sweep up the skeletons") epitomizes the cross cultural fertilization machine that is Denmark's Los Umbrellos.

Trio leader and exiled African crown prince Al Agami describes himself as "The African cowboy from Denmark," and it's an apt description. With singers Mai-Brit Grondahl Vingsoe and Grith Hojfeldt providing provocative and sugary harmonic backup to Agami's funky, rappish singing, these songs move from Mexican siesta music to reggae dance toast to nostalgia pop tour ("Obsession" features a sample of "Theme From A Summer Place").

The group debuted last year with the single "No Tengo Dinero," (based around a harpsichord line from the '60s hit "Never On A Sunday") which has Agami doing a rappin' reggae toast a la Shaggy while the girls sing the chorus (half in Spanish) with mariachi horns. But "Sweep" is this album's real gem. But just in case more traditional folks need to be broken into this bizarrely catchy hybrid band by something familiar, the band covers The Cars' "Drive" with a slow but punchy drum backbeat and a touch of rap ('who's gonna drive you home into the zone," Agami adds to the original lyrics).

The deep-voiced male vocal paired with silky sweet femme backups is a pop chemistry formula that worked well for The Human League, and sounds sensually sound once again between Agami and the girls on Flamenco Funk. This is a band that truly uses the world as its musical canvas, to exhilarating effect. Copenhagen is probably the last city you'd choose for the origin of Los Umbrellos. I'd have guessed Tijuana by way of Jamaica and Chicago.