Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
Poco,
Pickin’ Up the Pieces

Remembering Rusty Young, Poco co-founder, with a look back via our archives from just last month.Ed.

Can I be honest? I chose to review Poco’s 1969 debut Pickin’ Up the Pieces based solely on its cover. Sure it’s an excellent LP and pioneering work of country rock, but it’s the cover that truly matters to me because there’s a great story behind it. So here goes.

Seems bassist Randy Meisner–who would shortly thereafter become a founding member of the Eagles–quit the band in a royal snit after Richie Furay and Jim Messina (both formerly of Buffalo Springfield) excluded him from participating in the album’s final mix. This left Poco in a rather awkward position when it came to the painting of the band’s members meant to grace the album cover. Poco might have done any number of things to remedy this situation, the most obvious and simple one being to scrap the cover and come up with a new one. Instead they opted to air brush poor Randy from the cover Josef Stalin style–and replace him with a dog.

I’ve done a bit of research on said pooch, and he’s rather a mystery. I’ve had no luck contacting him through my many musician and record company connections, and I could find no evidence that he was paid for his role as stand-in. Nor was I able to determine if he actually played on the album. I hear no barking, which isn’t to say they buried him way back in the vocal mix. He may also have played bass. Should you happen to run into him tell him to give me a ring. I’d love to know how he’s doing.

Pickin’ Up the Pieces is often placed alongside The Byrds 1968 LP Sweetheart of the Rodeo as a seminal work of what would soon become known as country rock, but there are critical differences between the two. Sweetheart of the Rodeo included only two Byrds’ originals; Pickin’ Up the Pieces is composed solely of Poco originals. The Byrds sought inspiration from the past, paying homage to their country forebears, and it lends their music an old-timely hillbilly sound. Poco, on the other hand, were looking forward to a future that would include such studio slicks as the Eagles and Pure Prairie League.

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Graded on a Curve: Gordon Lightfoot,
An Introduction to Gordon Lightfoot

Robbie Robertson has called Canadian folk rock singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot “a national treasure,” and so he is. Canadians don’t just love their Orillia, Ontario native son, they worship him in temples that can only be entered by pilgrims clad in the holy sandals Gord wore on the cover of his 1974 LP Sundown.

And their devotion is understandable–Lightfoot has contributed many a timeless song to the world, and none other than Bob Dylan has gone on record saying that when he hears a Lightfoot song he wishes “it would last forever.”

Lightfoot wrote many a great song from 1965 to 1970 with United Artists, including “Early Morning Rain,” “Ribbon of Darkness,” and “Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” to name just a few. But he recorded his best known work for Warner/Reprise Records, with whom he signed in 1970. And it’s this work you’ll hear on 2018’s aptly titled compilation An Introduction to Gordon Lightfoot.

There are other Lightfoot compilations out there, but they either include music only your hardcore fans will want to own (see 1999’s Songbook or 2019’s The Complete Singles 1970–1980). 1975’s Gord’s Gold is arguably the best comp out there, including as it does material from both his United Artists and Warner Brothers years, but it omits “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” (inexcusable!) and (even more inexcusable!) includes re-recordings of the songs from Lightfoot’s years with United Artists.

All ten of the tracks on An Introduction to Gordon Lightfoot provide indisputable proof that Lightfoot is the best singer-songwriter to stand his ground in Canada (Neil and Joni and Robbie defected and never looked back), and if you’re inclined to argue this fact with the peace-loving Canucks of the Great White North they might just crown you with a hockey stick and toss you into Lake Ontario.

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Graded on a Curve: Radiohead,
Kid A

Celebrating Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien on his 53rd birthday.Ed.

Not long after Radiohead released 2000’s Kid A, my friend Patrick and I gave it a scathing review without having actually listened to it, on the basis that its only appeal was to depressives better served by listening to the Archies. We also surmised that if Thom Yorke was such a creep why bother, because who wants to hang out with a creep? And seems we weren’t alone. Author Nick Hornby lambasted Kid A, and a critic for England’s Melody Maker dismissed it as “tubby, ostentatious, self-congratulatory, look-ma-I-can-suck-my-own-cock whiny old rubbish.” You won’t hear that sort of language on The Crown.

It was the Melody Maker review that finally convinced me to give Kid A a listen–if the the damn thing was really that bad, I wasn’t going to miss out on the opportunity to pile on. But Kid A isn’t the space age fiasco I’d hoped for; its Pink Floyd/Brian Eno vibe make it the perfect accompaniment to a hard day over a hot bong. Your more active types, on the other hand, risk drowning in its ambient ooze. That sound you hear off in the distance is a non-fan, crying out hopelessly for a lifeguard.

The band itself was split over Kid A’s new direction; vocalist/songwriter Thom Yorke went into the studio convinced rock music had “run its course,” while guitarist/keyboardist Jonny Greenwood and bass player Colin Greenwood worried that they risked producing “awful art-rock nonsense just for its own sake.” Yorke was full of it–folks have been writing rock’s obituary since the early 1960s. The Greenwoods were wrong as well–Kid A may not be my cup of studio overkill, but it’s a noble foray into the realms of electronica that works, at least in parts, very well indeed.

Dreamy atmospherics abound, and on occasion Radiohead take things too far. The soundscape that is “Treefingers” is a limpid pool of nothing special, and if Yorke thinks he’s breaking new sonic ground he’s dead wrong; David Bowie was doing this sort of thing in the late seventies. The title track is a trifle livelier thanks to its snazzy drum beat and electronic squiggles, but Yorke’s distorted vocals serve only to annoy, and the big bass thump at the end of the song is too little too late.

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Graded on a Curve:
Deep Purple,
Machine Head

Celebrating Ritchie Blackmore on his 76th birthday.Ed.

If I’ve never come forward publicly about the indelible mark I made on rock history at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1971, it’s because I’m still peeved that Deep Purple saw fit to slander me as “Some stupid with a flare gun” in their big hit single “Smoke on the Water.” Firing that flare gun into the roof of the Montreux Casino may not have been the smartest thing I’ve ever done, but STUPID? I was EXCITED, and I just happened to have a flare gun on my person, and one thing led to another and before I knew it the rattan ceiling was on fire and all manner of shrieks were freaking towards the exits.

But enough personal history and on to Deep Purple, a band that I’ve always had reservations about. I find the English heavy metal avatars ponderous, plodding, and unduly portentous, and if you don’t know what I mean I direct you to “Smoke on the Water,” which is the very un-lightweight little ditty they’ll probably best be remembered for and which I can only describe as a very stoned dinosaur stomping in slow dazed circles to the accompaniment of one gargantuan and omnipresent guitar riff.

That said, Deep Purple–who after a lot of early creative experimentation and moments of serendipitous genius finally settled upon a sound that combined elements of prog rock and the grinding blues-based hard rock that would become known as heavy metal–had their moments, and lots of them are to be found on their sixth and most commercially successful LP, 1972’s Machine Head. From its very metallic (the title’s stamped in steel!) cover to its far-out boogie numbers Machine Head is one wild ride, what with Ian Gillian’s shriek, Ritchie Blackmore’s blazing guitar, Jon Lord’s “I am two separate gorillas” organ, and the positively intimidating drumming of Sir Ian Paice, who has yet to be knighted but certainly ought to be lest he become angry and start throwing punches.

Deep Purple originally intended to record this baby at the Montreux Casino in Switzerland, but that was before, well, I’ve already broken my long silence about the fire that “burned the place to the ground.” After deciding that it probably wouldn’t be a very good idea to record their next album atop a smoking ruins, they retreated to the empty Grand Hotel at the outskirts of Montreux, and with the help of the Rolling Stones’ mobile recording unit proceeded to make this surprisingly uptempo (by D.P. standards) piece of music history, which the very clear-headed Ozzy Osbourne has called one of his ten favorite British LPs of all time.

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Graded on a Curve:
Little Feat,
Little Feat

Celebrating Lowell George on the day of his birth.Ed.

Little Feat’s eponymous 1971 debut may not have changed the world, but to those who were listening it must have come as a revelation–here were four guys, two of ‘em Mothers of Invention alums, boldly staking their claim (and a decent claim it was) as America’s very own Rolling Stones. Not bad for a first outing.

Fronted by guitarist/vocalist and native Angeleno Lowell George–who with his gutbucket growl was the youngest white old black bluesman ever to graduate from Hollywood High School–Little Feat laid it on the line on their first LP. You get lysergic blues, trucker toons, some Sticky Fingers-school country honk–these guys took Gram Parsons’ concept of Cosmic American Music and ran with it. This is edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold music, the sound of the Mississippi Delta on hallucinogens–a mythical collaboration between Don Van Vliet, Dave Dudley, Mick & Keith, ZZ Top, Slim Harpo, and Harpo Marx.

Robert Christgau opined that these guys could “pass for” the Band, but he’s fulla shit. The Band always held things in check; they were as tightly wound as a clock, and clocks aren’t in the business of howling. They never hit as berserk a note as the Feat do on “Hamburger Midnight,” and there’s simply no mistaking the very agitated freak looking for safe harbor in “Strawberry Flats” to Levon Helm’s resigned drifter looking for a place to lay his head in “The Weight.” And the Americana-loving Robbie Robertson never could have come up with as song as bizarrely lovely as “Brides of Jesus,” which is set where exactly? In Lowell George’s LSD-scrambled mind?

No, the early Little Feat was a freak’s dream’s come true. Just check out the sorta Captain Beefheart-esque “Hamburger Midnight,” on which George plays some truly frenzied slide guitar and delivers the most unhinged performance of his career. Or “Strawberry Flats,” wherein poor Lowell (who’s been “ripped off and run out of town”) knocks on a friend’s door in search of succor only to discover: “His hair was cut off and he was wearing a suit/And he said not in my house, not in my house/”You look like you’re part of a conspiracy.”

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Graded on a Curve:
The Power Station,
The Power Station

Terrible things transpired in 1985. Starship’s “We Built This City” and “We Are the World” were unleashed on a hapless public causing a mass panic not seen since the radio broadcast of Orson Welles’ “The War of the Worlds.” I personally witnessed people leaping from third-story windows to escape both songs. Fortunately most of them landed in shrubbery.

Another horrible event occurred in 1985, although it tended to be overlooked in the general pandemonium. The “stuporgroup” Power Station released its eponymous debut LP, and while its mediocrity didn’t cause people to throw themselves off buildings, it did stultify them to the point of near catatonia. Cases of clinical depression rose by 15 percent in 1985, and psychiatrists credited Power Station for many of them.

A band made up of long-time gadfly Robert “Addicted to Love” Palmer, guitarist Andy and bassist John Taylor of Duran Duran, and Chic drummer Tony Thompson were no more a supergroup than Asia. But there was ample reason to believe they might make good music together. Unfortunately they had certain… shortcomings, shortcomings that led most intelligent human beings to give them a wide berth. Allow me to mention them in passing so as to get this unsavory task over with as fast as humanly possible.

First and foremost there’s the generic quotient. These songs are your standard eighties MOR fare and won’t win any personality contests–think Foreigner gone New Wave. And the band–with the exception of guitarist Andy Taylor–comes up short in the charisma department. The booming rhythm section lives up to the band’s name, but its sound is far from unique–that programmed drum beat runs through the mid-eighties like a flesh-eating virus.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Hold Steady,
Boys and Girls in America

The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn is the Poet Laureate of America’s post-teenage wasteland. He also happens to be the second coming of Bruce Springsteen. Oh, and I’m betting he owns the bigger collection of classic rock albums in his neighborhood. And on 2016’s Boys and Girls in America Finn does what he does best–sings about fucked-up kids doing fucked-up things while fucked up. They get fucked up at proms, killer parties and all-ages hardcore shows, and sometimes they get so fucked up they end up in hospitals and the chillout tents at rock festivals.

The Hold Steady’s oversized hard rock gives you the impression punk never happened–never mind the Sex Pistols, here come The Hold Steady. The band’s big sound dates back to Springsteen’s“Born to Run,” and The Hold Steady don’t try to hide his influence. Springsteen is also the obvious comparison when it comes to subject matter, but while the Boss of Born to Run went in for mythopoeic anthems about symbolic characters attempting to escape the swampland of New Jersey, The Hold Steady offer up detailed and anything but inspirational tales about real kids with real names (many of whom show up from song to song) looking less to escape their hometowns (Minneapolis Minnesota being the most often mentioned) but themselves. No myths and anthems for these guys.

The Hold Steady spell out the album’s theme on opening track “Stuck Between Stations,” which begins with the lines “There are nights when I think Sal Paradise [Jack Kerouac’s alter ego in On the Road] was right/Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together.” “Stuck Between Station” sets the LP’s musical tone as well, what with its big sound, megaton guitar riff and Franz Nicolay’s keyboards, which bring to mind the E Street Band’s Roy Bittan. And over it all you get Finn’s gruff and blustery talk-sing; he sounds like a big guy who can push you around, but in real life he wears glasses.

“Stuck Between Stations” is a template for what follows. “Chips Ahoy” is ostensibly about a woman who knows how to pick her horses, but its real subject is unbridgeable emotional distance: “How am I supposed to know that you’re high,” sings Finn, “if you won’t let me touch you?” The very Thin Lizzy “Hot Soft Light” is about a guy in an unstated legal predicament who lays out one very unconvincing alibi; he couldn’t have done it, it seems, because “I’ve been straight since the Cinco de Mayo/But before that I was blotto/I was blacked out/I was cracked out/I was caved in/You should have seen all these portals that I’ve powered up in.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Yes,
The Yes Album

Celebrating Steve Howe on his 74th birthday.Ed.

I’ve seen all good people turn their heads each day, wondering out loud, “What is that awful sound?” And I have to tell them, “It’s the Yes album spinning on your turntable, dim bulb!”

That’s the intro I intended to use for what I figured would be a disparaging review of 1971’s The Yes Album. I’ve always been a big believer in the motto “Just Say No to Yes,” because the band has all the loathsome characteristics of your average “progressive” rock band. Castrato vocalist, check. Extraordinarily talented musicians who would sooner play some intricately difficult chord progression than just whomp you on the skull like Iggy and the Stooges, ditto. And fiendishly complex songs composed of like 10 intricately interwoven musical themes, present. But a terrible thing happened when I put The Yes Album on my turntable. Much to my surprise and dismay, I discovered I actually kinda like the fucker!

Me! Prog! Impossible! Implausible! Because prog-rock is the exclusive domain of skinny-armed guys (women hate prog, it’s what makes them superior to men) in ill-fitting t-shirts with scruffy beards who spend the bulk of their time tinkering with electrical gadgetry and watching Dr. Who, and who like their rock music in direct proportion to its distance from three-chord rock. They don’t want three chords, they want three hundred! Five hundred! One thousand! One million!

Let’s get one thing straight: when I say I like The Yes Album what I really mean to say is that I like portions of The Yes Album. Because Yes, like many other progressive groups, suffers from a collective form of attention deficit disorder the effect of which is to render them incapable of sticking to one musical idea for very long. No sooner do they fall into a cool groove before they move onto another section that isn’t half as great, and so on. Rare is the song (the two-parter “All Good People” fills the bill) where they open on a beguiling note and stick with it through the entire song.

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Graded on a Curve:
Hall & Oates,
H2O

Celebrating John Oates on his 73rd birthday.Ed.

I love Hall & Oates. They’re such a great team. Daryl Hall does all of the writing, singing, and playing. John Oates has a mustache.

But don’t think for a moment that all of that heavy lifting has gone to Daryl’s head. He’s still the humble at heart guy who once told an interviewer, “I’m 90% and John’s 10%, and that’s the way it is.”

Me, I think Daryl is being unfair to poor John, and you know what’s even more unfair? Hall is never afforded the opportunity to defend himself. Well we live in America, goddamn it, and if there’s one thing I hate even more than live eels showing up in my mailbox it’s injustice. So I decided to sit Oates down and interview him. So without further ado:

Hi John. Ready to answer some very insightful and hard-hitting questions?

I just want to say from the outset that this isn’t really an interview and we’re not really speaking. This is all happening in your head.

Point taken. Your mustache is looking good.

Thanks. It was just added to the National Register of Historic Mustaches. If you look very closely you’ll see the plaque.

Wow. I thought it was a mole.

I get that a lot.

Do you resent people who think you don’t do much in Hall & Oates? That you’re just along for the proverbial mustache ride?

I do. I’ve helped shape many of our songs over the years. And if you look you’ll see I got solo songwriting credits and sang lead on a couple of songs on each of our classic albums, even if those songs weren’t hits because our record label is stupid and refused to release them as singles because Daryl told them he’d kill them if they did. And of course I played all of the electric mustache solos.

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Graded on a Curve: ABBA,
The Best of ABBA, The Millennium Collection

Celebrating Agnetha Fältskog on her 71st birthday.Ed.

I love ABBA. I love them so much I contacted the Swedish ambassador last week to see if I could buy them. “ABBA are a national treasure,” the ambassador informed me. “But a thousand kroner would probably do it.” I was rather taken aback really, given ABBA are Sweden’s biggest export behind Swedish Red Fish and Swedish meatballs.

ABBA’s frothy brand of Europop and disco bring back fond memories of my first and last visit to a discotheque. The experience was unforfeitable insofar as it ended with me throwing up in the parking lot, but it wasn’t ABBA’s fault–staring at the revolving glitter ball above the dance floor gave me vertigo.

From disco classic “Dancing Queen” to “Waterloo,” ABBA’s songs were good, innocent fun. Who can resist their infectious melodies and perfect harmonies? Lots of people, evidently. ABBA were anathema to the “Let’s burn down the disco crowd,” and none other than Robert Christgau saw fit to describe their “real tradition” as “the advertising jingle.”

Formed in 1972 by Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad, ABBA first made their mark by winning the 1974 Eurovision Contest–a sure step to superstardom, as evidenced as by such memorable bands as Teach-In and Herreys. It took awhile for ABBA to catch on with US listeners, but when they did they did it big—in the years between 1974 and 1981 they placed a dozen singles on the American Top 40.

The ABBA sound is a study in contradictions. On one hand their music is as frothy as it’s frosty; detractors will tell you their music is as cold as a dip into a Hellasgården ice bath. But to pop and disco lovers their music is something you’ll want to warm your hands over—especially if you spent your formative years listening to “Dancing Queen.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Rod Stewart,
The Best of Rod Stewart

Rod Stewart’s sad slide from brilliance to banality is enough to make a fella weep. From “Maggie May” and “You Wear It Well” to “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” and “Hot Legs” isn’t just sad, it’s a Greek tragedy. Defenders will say he was merely making concessions to update his sound in a bid to conquer the American pop charts. But “Hot Legs” was no concession–it was a crass sellout as shameless as Elvis Presley’s Stay Away, Joe.

Stewart’s downfall coincides with his departure from Mercury Records to Warner Bros. Records. But he didn’t just change record labels–he walked away from his muse as well. During the five-year run starting with 1969’s An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down and ending with 1974’s Smiler, Stewart produced a body of work that stands with the very best of the era’s singer/songwriters. And the 1975 compilation of Stewart’s tenure with Mercury Records, The Best of Rod Stewart, is the label’s attempt to provide an overview of those years.

Serious Stewart fans will have no use for The Best of Rod Stewart–they own and cherish Rod the Mod’s five Mercury Records’ LPs, and they’re as likely to play this one as they are his American Songbook stuff. And the comp has serious shortcomings, most having to do with song selection. But it’s a great way to raise the awareness of casual listeners inclined to judge Stewart by the likes of “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” (quick answer: no) and the skin-crawling anthem of lecherous old cradle-robbers that is “Tonight’s the Night.”

The compilation’s biggest weakness (and it’s a significant one) stems from Mercury Records’ understandable but questionable decision to give, with one exception, each of Stewart’s five studio LPs equal representation. You get three songs apiece from 1969’s An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down, 1970’s Gasoline Alley, 1971’s Every Picture Tells a Story, and 1974’s Smiler, but only two songs from 1972’s Never a Dull Moment (don’t ask me why). This decision makes The Best of Rod Stewart less a best-of than a promotional ploy to send listeners back to Stewart’s previous LPs, and serious fans are sure to go apoplectic over Mercury’s choices.

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Graded on a Curve: Aerosmith,
Toys in the Attic

Celebrating Steven Tyler on his 73rd birthday.Ed.

Back in the day I went back on forth on Boston Very Baked Beans like a yoyo–liked ‘em in high school, loathed ‘em in college, then did what any sane person would do and put ‘em out of mind altogether. “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” didn’t exactly make me want to keep abreast of what Aerosmith was up to.

First year in the dorms at Shippensburg College Aerosmith were inescapable, what with my floor’s resident dope dealers Sheesh and Shrooms cranking the Toxic Twins around the clock, and I’ll never forget the day in the dining hall I warned ‘em Aerosmith would rot their brains, and if they really wanted to improve their minds they’d switch to Frank Zappa! Who at the time, if I recall correctly, was producing such IQ-raising fare as “Crew Slut” and “Wet T-Shirt Nite”!

Yeah, I was full of shit for sure. Because like ‘em or not, Aerosmith were on to something. Steven Tyler, Joe Perry and the boys fused the New York Dolls’ glam-rock sleaze with Led Zeppelin’s sonic bombast to produce a brand new kinda high-stepping boogie strut. Aerosmith translated the leer into sound, brought David Johansen’s trash raunch aesthetic to the unwashed masses, and gleefully knocked the blues topsy-turvy, tossing in a whole bunch of dirty limericks in the process.

Theirs was garage rock of a sort, but the garage had a supercharged 1964 Pontiac GTO in it. Fact is Aerosmith boogied faster than almost any machine on the streets back in 1975. Punk was considered the fleetest thing on wheels at the time, but the title track of Toys in the Attic crosses the finish line before anything on Never Mind the Bollocks, and it came out a year and a half earlier! And Tyler’s nursery rhymes for adults are anything but dumb–anybody who can fit poor Paul Getty’s ear into a lyric is A-OK by me.

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Graded on a Curve:
Papa Roach,
Infest

Where’s Raid when you need it? Because the scurrying of little feet across the linoleum floor of stupid that’s Papa Roach’s 2000 LP Infest calls for an exterminator. On Infest Papa Roach do the seemingly impossible-namely produce a “step on it before it disappears beneath the refrigerator” species of rap rock that out-sucks anything by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

How is it possible, you ask? It’s not a question of which rap-rock band rocks harder. Papa Roach has the metal in Nu Metal part down flat, even if every song on Infest sounds the same. No, what makes Papa Roach an even more unhygienic musical health hazard than the Red Hots is their complete lack of a sense of humor.

The Red Hots are an insufferable frat rock party band whose main appeal is to essentially good natured ignoranamouses. Papa Roach, on the other hand, are a sullen bunch of pissed-off post-juveniles whose main appeal is to actual juveniles harboring grudges against life, parents, fate, “the system,” and God knows what else. The fact that Papa Roach’s emotional range is limited to enraged apoplexy makes every song on Infest an annoying bummer, and anyone with even a smidgen of joy coursing through their veins will find themselves reaching for the nearest pesticide.

Papa Roach suck for a variety of reasons. I find it appalling that there’s someone out there whose “rapping” is more wooden than Anthony Kiedis’, but Jacoby Shaddix pulls it off. What’s more, Papa Roach’s funk quotient is only slightly higher than that of Rush, and their emo levels are as dangerously high as those of Fall Out Boy. And don’t even get me started on Shaddix’s lyrics. Whether he’s feeling sorry for himself or promising violent revenge, his lyrics aren’t just dumb–they’re an insult to the intelligence of every member of order Blattodea.

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Graded on a Curve: Aretha Franklin,
Lady Soul

Celebrating Aretha Franklin on the date of her birth.Ed.

The recent passing of Aretha Franklin was hardly unexpected, but it still sent many millions of people the world over into flash mourning. Here in America, the Queen of Soul inspired us through the Civil Rights Years with her soaring voice, set our hearts a-beatin’ with her timeless R&B anthems, and sent us to Heaven with her songs of devotion and praise. She was the very definition of “young, gifted and black,” and her immortal voice will roll down the ages like soul thunder.

With a discography that spanned from the late 1950s to 2017, Aretha produced more than enough great music to stock a top-notch jukebox, but most everybody has a favorite Franklin LP. Me, I turned for solace upon learning of her death to 1968’s Lady Soul.

As with most of her albums, Lady Soul demonstrates Franklin’s amazing range; unlike many of her albums, Lady Soul gives Aretha the opportunity to show off her amazing range on a uniformly amazing collection of songs. She cooks up a heady soul stew, gets real funky, reaches for the stars, and sings from the gut about her poor broken down heart, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that she had one foot planted solidly in her hometown of Detroit and the other one in the Great Beyond.

Franklin got her start at her daddy’s New Bethel Baptist Church in the Motor City, and while she ultimately took the secular route, her gospel beginnings always showed; just listen to her spirit-rousing cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” on which she sings about a heaven-bound train that’s coming and thanks the Lord more times than I can count. I’m not a devout man, but this one makes me want to cry, “Raise me up, Jesus! I wanna ride that glorious soul train!”

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Graded on a Curve:
Neu!,
Neu! ‘75

Celebrating Klaus Dinger on the day of his birth.Ed.

I’ve always loved Neu!; theirs is the relentless and steady as she goes “motorik” sound of a BMW stolen by the outlaw Baader-Meinhof Gang speeding down the Autobahn, on their way to West Berlin to create mischief and mayhem.

Formed in 1971 in Düsseldorf by Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother, both of whom were former members of Kraftwerk, Neu! was one of the founders of Krautrock, utilizing the simplistic 4/4 motorik (i.e., “motor skill”) beat (which Dinger chose to label the “Apache beat”) to propel their songs while dispensing with all kinds of useless stuff like verses and choruses and the like. Meanwhile Rother accompanied Dinger’s drumming with a guitar-produced harmonic drone, utilizing a single chord upon which he would pile overdub upon overdub to emphasize timbral change.

Not that I know what any of that means, but I don’t have to, because I’m no musician but just a guy with ears, two of them to be exact, one of which works better than the other due to a tragic Q-tip accident. The important thing is that Neu! influenced everyone from David Bowie to John Lydon, to say nothing of Stereolab (natch) and even Oasis. The results of Neu!’s innovations were simultaneously lulling and exciting; theirs was the sound of minimal variation at high velocity.

Neu! ’75 followed 1972’s Neu! and 1973’s Neu! 2, and was significantly different from those records in so far as Dinger and Rother had begun to take divergent paths. In the end they compromised, with side one highlighting Rother’s ambient leanings and side two spotlighting Dinger’s more feral rock, which could almost be called proto-punk. The resulting LP is a Jekyll and Hyde proposition, but it works, in exactly the same way as David Bowie’s Neu!-influenced Low LP does.

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