Reviews > Music
CONNICK: Gary Gershoff/WireImage/Newscom • NELSON: Peter Kramer/AP

Quality standards

Music | Connick and Nelson do well with traditional pop favorites

Issue: "Pro-baby," Jan. 30, 2010

Like the culture they reflect, the Grammy Awards have become so Balkanized by categorical subdivisions and politics that many recordings which might have once been up for "Album of the Year" now get shoved aside to make way for acts whose trendiness makes them as likely to jack up viewer ratings as to be forgotten in 10 years.

Nevertheless, some signs of stability, diminished though they are, remain. Two "Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album" nominees in particular, Harry Connick Jr.'s Your Songs (Columbia) and Willie Nelson's American Classic (Blue Note), hold out hope that someday the national soundtrack might once again reflect more permanence than trendiness, more unum than pluribus.

The very fact that the music-American popular songs, aka standards, in this case-can unite two so dissimilar performers speaks well of its power to bridge gaps. (The quadruple-married, marijuana-legalization advocate Nelson, for instance, is only eight years younger than the once-and-still-married Connick's drug-testing-advocate and former Louisiana-district­attorney father.)

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The albums' performance on various sales charts underscored their unifying potential. Connick's album reached the top 10 not only in the United States but also in Australia and New Zealand. The statistics amassed by Nelson's album were not as impressive, but, considering how many times Nelson has recorded standards, and quite a few of them more than once, that American Classic even came close to the country top 10 (it reached 14) strongly suggests that a healthy appetite for freshly roasted chestnuts remains.

The Catch-22 facing any album of standards, of course, is that such albums by their very nature comprise songs that have already long existed in definitive versions. So it is that in recording "All the Way," "(They Long to Be) Close to You," "Can't Help Falling in Love," and "Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)," Connick risked disappointing such formidable contingents as fans of Frank Sinatra, the Carpenters, Elvis Presley, and Tony Bennett, respectively.

Nelson, on the other hand, went even further out on a limb. Besides braving songs long associated with golden-throated singers ("On the Street Where You Live," "Fly Me to the Moon," "Come Rain or Come Shine"), he revisited "Always on My Mind," the Presley obscurity that Nelson topped the charts with nearly 30 years ago.

What keeps Your Songs and American Classic from reeking of the commercial desperation that has clung to Rod Stewart's and Barry Manilow's recent series of "oldies" albums is that neither Connick nor Nelson seems to be aiming for any goal besides serving the songs as well as their talent and other natural inclinations will allow.

And while those with a low tolerance for bathos could've done without Connick's revival of Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are" and Elton John's "Your Song," those with a low tolerance for climate-change hysteria will gladly make room for Nelson's "Baby, It's Cold Outside."

This year's Grammys also highlight another case of inadvertent political incorrectness. The Australian hard-rock juggernaut AC/DC, whose multi-platinum Black Ice (Columbia) is one of the more deserving nominees for "Best Rock Album," was informed just before Christmas that an outdoor Austrian date on the spring leg of its 2010 tour might be canceled.

The reason: BirdLife International believes that AC/DC's notorious decibels will "endanger" a colony of curlews. (Ironically, a live version of the group's 1980 single "Rock and Roll Ain't Noise Pollution" appears on Backtracks, a just-released collection of rarities and videos.)

Conservatives torn between whom to root for should ask themselves which is freer: a world in which AC/DC cowers before animal-rights activists or one in which activists cower before AC/DC.

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