By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Professor D & the Playschool
Nominated for: Cover Band
Although nominated for best cover band, Professor D and his crew's two CD releases, Certified Funky (1996) and Certified Funky 2 ('98) showcase the band's original material, much of it penned by frontman Donnie Heydon. The "cover act" label stems from its live-show circuit (Arlington clubs, Dallas Alley, frat parties, etc.) and its self-imposed "party band" status, playing happy-happy, good-time funk-lite. The seven smiling members--six white-bread suburban men and one Dorie Love, a bopping, gyrating chick who sings up in front--seem content with their local loyal following and their innocuous reputation; their idea of "racy" are lyrics like, "Pussycat's in the house (meow! meow!)/I could be your lover boy, you could be my thaang/Open up your heart, and let that kitty swang/Here kitty, kitty!" Words like that epitomize the harmless fun a party band has to generate to get a strange and general crowd drinking, throwing down, and eventually throwing up.
Nominated for: Most Improved Act
Ben Kweller never had a chance, and he knew it too, even at the tender-tough age of 16. Even before the world had heard a note of Radish's Restraining Bolt, the pressure sat on his chest and threatened to crush the breath out of him--first, from Mercury Records President Danny Goldberg, then from The New Yorker, then from his father and perhaps even himself. He was more overhyped than Betamax and doomed to the same end, obsolete even before unwrapped. No band in the world, especially one fronted by a mere child who had barely played the clubs, could have been expected to have broken the top of the pops right out of the gate; at best, Radish might have made it as a novelty, but novelties wear thin once it's discovered how poorly they're made. And so Restraining Bolt sold a few thousand records; a couple of songs made it on to radio and MTV, and then it disappeared to the used-CD bins, where no one bought it even at the nicest price. Seems every kid in America already has a Nirvana album.
But why disparage Kweller for making a record thick with the echoes of his heroes? Why write him off, as Spin recently did, before he's even had the chance to find his own voice, much less let it break? Restraining Bolt is a perfectly mediocre record--for teen rock heroes, Ben Lee is a safer bet, though no less derivative in his own endorsed-by-Sonic-Youth indie-rock fashion--but that's precisely what ex-Nirvana manager Goldberg wanted, an album that recalled his old buddy Kurt without actually digging him up. Kweller, a kid from Greenville for whom grunge hadn't lost its flavor, made the record he was supposed to make; he is, remember, just a child, a pawn in a machine much bigger than he will ever be, and what Goldberg wanted, he got--right in the mouth. The whole experience has left Kweller a little wiser, a little wearier, and a little more gun-shy; he wants to prove he's not a dud in the same cannon that fired Hanson into the Milky Way. And so he has hired the wonder that is Joe Butcher as his bassist, and one can only hope young Ben will let old Joe show him how they do it in the real world. The addition of Butcher should make them, well, most improved, but only if the boy occasionally looks to his bassist to see what it takes to be a rock and roll man.
Nominated for: Rockabilly/Swing
He's a sax maniac from way back, when Tango's frogs were all the rage and lounge music was more nostalgia than capital-N now. For years, Reno made a living by providing the ultimate good-time music, swinging crystal-clear notes for the Lite-beer crowd, long before martinis began flowing like water. That he went swing is hardly a surprise, and hardly a sell-out pose: After all, what was his part-time boss Chris Isaak if not a 1950s throwback of a different breed, a pin-up rockabilly who looked like Elvis and hurt like Chet Baker? Reno's brand of lounge is hardly as one-note as the term implies. His 1997 disc Swinging and Singing aches with B-3 soul, as Jimmy Pugh and Red Young (the latter is the blood coursing through L.A. institution Joey Altruda's veins) play the hell out of their Hammonds and turn such standards as "One For My Baby," "My Baby Just Cares For Me," and "Harlem Nocturne" into stirring, swinging affairs that would make both Francis Albert Sinatra and Jimmy Smith so very proud.
The lounge lizard shtick wears well on Reno, master of his domain at the Red Jacket: If his sax always seemed a little sweet behind Isaak's brooding rockabye blues, now it's got just the right sound--it smolders, like a cigarette down to the butt. And if Reno ain't exactly Chet Baker or Sinatra (or Chris Isaak, for that matter), his somber, sensitive delivery is Rat-Pack perfect, like Joey Bishop on a bender. Book this boy in Vegas or the Viper Room, and start printing the money.