Van Fleet taps key retro vibe
The rock categories at the Grammys have, for more than a decade, largely been a subsidy program for Dave Grohl and his ’90s-post-alt contemporaries.
But nothing gets Grammy rock voters hotter than a popular new band that nods back to older bands (see recent wins from the War On Drugs and Cage the Elephant), and this year has a major contender in Greta Van Fleet.
The Michigan quartet had perhaps the strongest Grammy showing of any guitar-based group this year. With nominations in all the major rock categories (performance, song and album) and an additional nod in the new artist category, it’s clear that they are the Grammy consensus pick for 2018’s breakthrough rock act.
Like Kings of Leon or Haim before them, they’re a mostly siblings act with clear reference points to the stadium-rock era of Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. Their breakthrough LP, “From the Fires,” delivers extremely time-tested pleasures (like, 40 years’ worth) of high-octane arena-blues from very attractive young men. A single such as “Highway Tune” is such an obvious easy sell to Grammy voters that the band has become a musicbiz meme in its own right.
Thus, Greta Van Fleet is new enough to feel revitalizing to Grammy voters, but embodies an era when a lot of boomers thought rock ’n’ roll peaked. That’s probably a shoo-in for at least a few big rock awards. Given some potential R&B vote-splitting between Chloe X Halle, H.E.R. and Jorja Smith, and a lack of rock competition in the category, don’t count the band out for best new artist.
More ambitious rock innovation is present among the Grammy nominees, however. It just happens to be a few categories down, in the metal and alternative divisions. While 2018 is yet another year when “alternative” is a meaningless descriptor — a weird holdover from the ’90s — but Grammy voters know what metal is, and this year the category has a few pleasant surprises.
The now-L.A.-based blackgazers Deafheaven earned a nod for “Honeycomb,” off the group’s fourth album, “Ordinary Corrupt Human Love,” which expanded its sound into more hopeful, accessible terrain. A Grammy nod likely won’t do much to please the blackmetal niche that remains skeptical of the atmospheric band, but between it and a nod for Oakland’s High on Fire, it’s a promising twist for a genre doing much of the legwork rock used to do in advancing guitar bands.
Over in alternative, St. Vincent and Arctic Monkeys earned nominations for albums that are, by a longshot, the least “rock” of their careers. St. Vincent’s “Masseduction” was as sleek and smart as an arty pop album could hope to be, with topflight collaborators from all over (Jack Antonoff, Sounwave, Kamasi Washington, Lars Stalfors).
Arctic Monkeys’ “Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino” was a concept album about burnouts in a hotel bar on the moon, with singer Alex Turner behind a piano doing his best depressed-David Bowie moves (it’s way more fun than that sounds).
It’s hard to write off a legend such as David Byrne or a previous album-of-the-year winner such as Beck, but given St. Vincent’s nod in rock song as well, she looks to be the front-runner there.