By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Nominated for: Blues, Folk/Acoustic
Who knew what to make of Alan's 1997 Blacks 'n' Jews? The title track was a work of absolute genius and chutzpah, the history of black-Jewish relations rolled up into one glib, sharp statement: "Marchin' two-by-two down in Mississippi/One was a Panther when the other was a hippie...Come back together now, blacks and Jews." The Jew Also Known as Josh Alan Friedman (a frequent contributor to the Observer) embraced the stereotypes his father, Bruce Jay Friedman, made famous in such novels as Stern and turned over the race card to find it was a joker; even the cover, featuring Torah-wielding Hasidim frolicking with bug-eyed Amos and Andy stand-ins, was an exaggerated joke that made its point and jammed it into your head. The boy's meshugenah, all right, crazy like a lox.
But when you look past the title track and burrow further into the disc, the title becomes less a joke and more a mission statement: No Hebrew in town does a better Blind Lemon Jefferson or makes a better accompaniment for vocalist-harpist Sam Myers, who joins Alan on the lowdown "No One Owns the Blues." Alan, a born-and-bred Yankee who moved here to be with his wife more than a decade ago and then nearly suffered a nervous breakdown from all the barbecue sauce, plays guitar like a kid born on the front porch. He reinterprets Jeff Beck with a little extra soul, redoes the Beatles with a bluesman's flair, and plays just enough notes to remind you how good he is and just few enough to make you appreciate the silences.
The rare knock on Alan has always been his voice: Purists argue that he sings like a boxer, that his are forever the soul vocals of a cracker who grew up in Times Square. But that's his real charm, when you get down to it: When he sings his haunting "Harlem Time" or the surprisingly moving "Bela Lugosi" off his album The Worst!, you can hear how hard he's trying not to try hard at all, and he'll win you over every time.
Nominated for: New Act, Rock
How does a band that made it onto the award ballot last year in the rock category qualify for the New Act nod this time around? Well, to cop an NBC slogan: If you haven't heard 'em, they're new to you. Not that there is anything truly new about the American Fuse; guitarist Nate Fowler (formerly of Sixty-Six), bassist Kinley Wolfe (once in the Cult), and drummer Clint Phillips (the Agitators) don't pretend there is. The American Fuse is three-chord rock gone awry: good ol' unabashed and unashamed, 90-mph, three- to four-minute rampages about the things that used to be important to all rockers--fast cars, hard drinking, the devil--before a bunch of namby-pamby college kids ruined it for everyone by thinking.
The tracks that jump out on One Fell Swoop, their debut album for Idol Records, are the same ones that jolt your head away from your whiskey for a few seconds when you catch them live, the kind of rock and roll that makes you yearn to pull a Bon Scott in the back of a pickup truck. A song like "Texas Speedball" sets off like a drag racer without a parachute, rambling faster and faster until you're certain that the only way it can end is by crashing into the wall; instead, it just runs out of gas. And then there's the cover of "Psycho Killer," which makes you stop just long enough to realize that those college rockers may have been onto something after all.
Nominated for: Metal
They're a time-warp gem, so yesterday they barely exist in today. If you didn't know better, you'd think ASKA--with its tease-me-don't-please-me hair and second-skin leather and Von Erich poses--was some kind of brilliant joke, a high-concept parody of an old hair-metal band; they make John Freeman and his Dooms U.K. look like high-brow amateurs. Only it ain't a gag, and only now, on their third record (1997's Nine Tongues), does it all start to make sense. ASKA, more popular in Korea and Germany than in their hometown of Arlington, are the true rock and roll revolutionaries, dedicated to keeping alive a music that all but died around the time Cherry Pie was giving the preteens a bedroom boner. This stuff is the true old-school: Brothers George and Damon Call, Darren Knapp, and Keith Knight are like time travelers who got whisked away from 1982 and dropped into 1998 and never noticed the difference. Maybe that's what living in Arlington does to you.
What at first seemed silly and even kind of offensive (the debut record contained some vaguely racist lyrics, though they always denied it) has revealed itself as an absolutely radical concept. It takes far more balls to make this kind of music than it does for Hagfish to recycle 1977 punk or Slow Roosevelt to offer up same-old-same-old speed metal. ASKA pisses in the wind and enjoys the damp breeze; they're fooling themselves right into a nice, long career.