Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
Grace Slick, Manhole

“The horror! The horror!” Mistah Kurtz, Heart of Darkness

Some things just should never have been. Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Foreigner. John and Yoko’s Double Fantasy. And let’s not forget Grace Slick’s 1974 debut solo album, Manhole. From the unfortunate sexual connotations of its title, to its inflated songs odious cover art, Manhole is just that: something you might fall into, and be very frightened until you manage to climb back out. Oh, and it says something, although I don’t know what, that on Manhole’s best cut—and that’s relative—Slick doesn’t even sing.

Don’t get me wrong; Slick sings well, and she’s surrounded herself with everybody who was anybody in San Francisco at that unfortunate juncture in time. Even David Crosby, Grace’s male equivalent, makes a cameo. But you know you’re in trouble when the album’s highlight—or lowlight—is a 15-plus minute opus entitled “Theme From the Movie Manhole,” a movie that never got made and for all I know was a figment of Slick’s acid-fogged imagination.

I’ve never been a big Jefferson Airplane/ Jefferson Starship/ Starship fan, so I’ll admit to having a bias. I like the song “Volunteers” and that’s pretty much it, although I will confess to occasionally listening to Jefferson Starship’s “Miracles” just to guffaw when Marty “I got punched in the nose by a Hell’s Angel” Balin sings, “I had a taste of the real world/ When I went down on you, girl.” But I try to keep an open mind because, well, I’ve seen previous musical prejudices of mine destroyed on multiple occasions, and it’s no fun eating crow.

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Graded on a Curve: Earth, Wind & Fire, The Best of Earth, Wind & Fire Vol. 1

Of all the things I’ve loved during my tenure on this planet, it’s hard to beat Earth, Wind & Fire’s Maurice White. And not because he’s a musical genius and head honcho of one of the Seventies’ best soul/funk outfits. No, I love him because he’s the guy who sings, “Yowl!” on several occasions on the great “That’s the Way of the World.” They never fail to thrill me, those yowls, not since I was a young sprog and loved the hell out of MFSB’s “T.S.O.P.”

EWF’s songs dominated Top 40 radio when I was young, because unlike Sly and the Family Stone and Parliament/Funkadelic they were unapologetically middle of the road. But that doesn’t mean that their songs weren’t great, just that they were more like the black equivalent of Elton John than, say, Randy Newman. As the critic Robert Christgau noted about one of their prime LPs, “Most of these songs are fun to listen to. But they’re still MOR–the only risk they take is running headlong into somebody coming down the middle of the road in the opposite direction. Like The Carpenters.”

But so what? Earth, Wind & Fire have produced their fair share of timeless songs, and if they’re slick, the slickness works. Under the direction of White, EWF’s drummer, songwriter, and vocalist, the band’s sound was—and still is—an eclectic brew of funk, jazz, gospel, rock, smooth soul, blues, folk, African music, and disco, and what made them particularly remarkable were their group vocals, and especially the vocals of Maurice White and Philip Bailey. Unrelentingly positive, their songs were a balm for the soul, and I for one think “That’s the Way of the World” is a slice of mystical brilliance and a song for the ages. All of those vocalists throwing in; it’s a sound so soulful I sprout an Afro every time I listen to it. And their horn section, the four-member Phenix Horns, also merits special attention; one listen to the opening of “Shining Star” and you know you’re in the presence of genius.

Which is not to say I like all their songs. The ones on which Bailey handles lead vocals in particular tend to be too slick for my tastes, what with his high-pitched vocals and their tendency to wander into romantic schlock. But hey, he can hardly be blamed for crooning; people love a good crooner. They’re good songs, just not my cup of soul.

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Graded on a Curve: Mercury Rev,
Yerself Is Steam

Love, people, is all around us. We’re surrounded by it. We’re choking on it, gagging on it, strangling on it. Which is why we erect barbed wire around our hearts; we don’t want it, love, to kill us. We must protect ourselves. Take defensive measures. Build a machine gun nest to gun it down before it can grab us and twist us into shapes that leave us vulnerable, defenseless, and at the whim of the one emotion that knows no mercy.

Which is where psychedelics come in. They tear down the barbed wire, jam the machine gun, and open our hearts like 24-hour drive-thru fast food outlets. And we come face to face with love, and see that it doesn’t want to strangle us after all. It just wants to open our hearts to the good that, believe it or not, is actually out there, roaming around in the horrible world.

Okay, so maybe I’m being a bit lax on hallucinogens. After all, I’m the guy who once locked himself into the bathroom of a doublewide trailer on a pig farm, because I was freaking out. But that never happens with a great psychedelic rock album. Take Mercury Rev’s 1991 debut, Yerself Is Steam. I listen to it and I can feel my heart open up like a flower. I’m a hippie and I don’t care, especially when the album comes to its fantastic ending, “Car Wash Hair.”

Perhaps best known for 1999’s excellent Deserter’s Songs, which featured cameos by The Band’s Levon Helm and Garth Hudson, Mercury Rev has come a long way from their early psychedelic blow-outs, much as their sister band The Flaming Lips have transcended their wild, acid-washed, ways. But a few songs aside, I think both bands have sacrificed something vital in the process. They sound bigger, lusher, more orchestral now, but the strangeness factor is gone; they sound like pros, not dayglo-eyed freaks, and it was their sheer weirdness that attracted me to them in the first place.

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Graded on a Curve:
Yo La Tengo,
May I Sing With Me

Yo La Tengo has always been a hard band to put a label on. Mainly because they’re all over the fucking place, putting sweet and melodic tunes next to epic guitar blow-outs. This has led many a critic to tar them as a sort of second coming of The Velvet Underground, another band that went from lovely to jarringly dissonant at the drop of that syringe Lou Reed used to pretend he was shooting up with on stage. But Yo La Tengo lacks the panache of VU, for one simple reason: no syringes. The trio looks anything but menacing, doesn’t make decadence its subject matter, and its members could easily pass for counselors at a youth summer camp. They lack the jaded and sordid stuff of which rock legends are made. They’re too… nice.

The question of whether this has hurt them career-wise is debatable, but one thing’s for sure—their eclecticism can be as maddening as it is happy-making. Is their next album going to be a friendly acoustic hello (Fakebook), a ramshackle series of covers performed in as half-assed a manner as possible (Yo La Tengo Is Murdering the Classics), or a series of blistering guitar assaults on your ear holes? Or, most likely, a little bit of both? I certainly don’t know. What I do know is that they’re one of the most consistently excellent bands in the land, producing great album after great album, both decadence and adherence to a strict formula be damned.

Hoboken’s Yo La Tengo—they’re Ira Kaplan on guitar, piano, and vocals; Georgia Hubley on drums, piano, and vocals; and James McNew on bass and vocals—have been around since 1984, although McNew didn’t come on board until 1992’s May I Sing With Me, on which he played on 9 of its 11 tracks. May I Sing With Me is, without a doubt, one of those LPs where they’re all over the place. Kaplan plays some of the most dissonant and adventurous guitar I’ve ever heard—“Mushroom Cloud of Hiss” comes close to equaling VU’s “I Heard Her Call My Name,” my touchstone when it comes to pure chaotic mad guitar genius—while the songs featuring Hubley on vocals are as sweet as shoo-fly pie. Okay, so maybe the LP is slanted towards noise, beautiful noise, and none of its songs are as lovely as the ones on 1990’s great Fakebook, but I’m a noise guy and simply can’t resist big dissonance, so of course I’m going to prefer May I Sing With Me.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Marshall Tucker Band, (s/t)

Rock flute is one of mankind’s greatest evils. An abomination so unsavory that, following Focus’ infamous flute work-out “Hocus Pocus,” the world’s 195 nations called for an emergency meeting in Geneva to put an end to the practice. The result was the Hocus Pocus by Focus Treaty of 1972, which was signed by 192 nations. Unfortunately, the 3 countries that declined to sign the treaty were Liechtenstein, the United Kingdom, and the United States. It is for this reason that we have South Carolina’s Marshall Tucker Band, a southern rock outfit that flaunted the flute in its songs, no matter how incongruous the combination.

But here’s the odd thing—more often than not, the damned flute works. It shouldn’t work, it literally can’t work, but work it does. It may induce severe cognitive dissonance in many individuals, and horrific Jethro Tull flashbacks in others, but if you listen long enough you’ll come to a grudging respect for the band’s obstinacy. If you don’t like the flute, they’re basically saying, we have a good idea where you can shove it.

Some history in brief: In 1972 a crew of Spartanburg boys changed the name of their band from the Toy Factory to the Marshall Tucker Band—a name they took from a blind piano tuner, whose name was inscribed on the key to their rehearsal space—and went into the studio to record their self-titled debut LP. Released in 1973, it turned out be a Southern rock classic, and the band (which consisted of Toy Caldwell on lead vocals, guitar, and steel guitar; Doug Gray on lead vocals; Tommy Caldwell on bass; George McCorkle on rhythm and acoustic guitars; Paul Riddle on drums; and Jerry Eubanks on flute and alto sax) never looked back. The band got by on excellent musicianship and a parcel of great songs by Toy Caldwell, who played a mean guitar and had a gruff and powerful voice to boot; if you don’t like the way he manhandles the great “Can’t You See,” one of my favorite songs Southern rock songs ever, you’re an incorrigible Yankee and likely to remain an incorrigible Yankee until the day you die.

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Graded on a Curve:
Ozzy Osbourne,
Diary of a Madman

Ozzy Osbourne almost bit my earlobe off during an interview once. One minute we were talking about Master of Reality and the next he was lunging across the table to take my left ear—an easy target seeing as how I suffer from Meniere’s Disease, which causes radical enlargement of the earlobes—and shaking it, while growling like an angry Rottweiler. It was like a scene straight out of Dostoevsky, to be precise the moment in The Devils when Nikolai Stavrogin bites the governor’s ear. Anyway, I cried “Mercy!” as he literally lifted me out of my chair and led me around the room, my earlobe clenched in his slavering mouth. He finally let go and apologized afterwards, but offered no explanations. Then again, what can you expect from the guy who once said, “Off all the things I lost I miss my mind the most.” I consider it an honor.

Okay, so the above never happened. (I feel obligated to say this because in another article I swore my adolescent skull secreted sperm, that’s how horny I was, and a few folks actually wrote to tell me this was impossible. Duh.) But the Ozzy earlobe biting could have occurred. He once ate the heads off two live doves, and famously bit the head off a dead bat on stage, an act that led him to quip, “I got rabies shots for biting the head off a bat but that’s OK—the bat had to get Ozzy shots.” And then there’s the time he thought it would be a good idea to snort fire ants. In short, in Ozzy World, biting off a journalist’s earlobe would be child’s play.

I love Ozzy’s work with Black Sabbath, but have always avoided his solo stuff, although I love “Crazy Train.” Why? Because after being fired by Black Sabbath in 1979, one would have expected Ozzy to continue in the grand Sabbath tradition of releasing records filled with songs so monolithically slow and heavy they sounded like mammoth King Tiger tanks grinding up unlucky Poles. But Ozzy took a radically different path. His solo albums were lighter, in fact almost dainty; compared to the relentless eardrum-pummeling crunge of Black Sabbath they sounded spritely, bouncy even. In short, he gave up mastodon metal for regular old metal, which in that time and place was as much about hair spray as it was gargantuan guitar wank. If Sabbath’s albums are pig iron, Osbourne’s solo LPs are aluminum, and I for one wasn’t crazy about Ozzy’s transformation from Iron Man to Tin Man.

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TVD Live: Hamell on Trial at Big Andy’s TV House, 5/9

So there I was, in Northwest Washington, DC sitting on a sofa Big Andy’s living room on Saturday, May 9, 2015, witnessing the miraculous. Namely, the great Ed Hamell of Hamell on Trial and it was a privilege to watch him perform in a space so small. Why, it could hardly have been more intimate if we’d all taken off our clothes like the guy in Hamell’s wonderful song, “First Date.”

Hamell, in case you’re not acquainted with his work, is one of the most idiosyncratic figures on the indie scene. He’s an anti-folk folkie who can play his old Gibson at about 1,000 mph, a teller of filthy jokes who is dead serious when it comes to the state of the world and its myriad casualties, and a survivor of drug addiction who still loves whores and other down-and-outers and insists upon achieving career success on his own terms, which is why he was playing Big Andy’s living room instead of Madison Square Garden. Oh, and did I happen to mention he takes his 13-year-old son Detroit on the road with him, and even brings Detroit to the front of the stage to tell a few jokes? Hamell is truly one of a kind; a compassionate man who loves to tell his audiences to go fuck themselves, and a cynic abounding with empathy. And it’s all in good not quite clean fun, as are many of his most noteworthy songs, such as the wonderfully bilious “I Hate Your Kid.”

The first thing you learn, watching Hamell, is that he loves to tell jokes, interrupts his own songs to tell jokes, and works jokes into his songs. He also interrupts his tunes to tell hilarious true stories, about his old drug buddies and their misadventures, which include smoking cat litter in the hopes that it was a rock of crack even though they knew damn well it was kitty litter, or finding a suitcase floating at sea filled with white powder, which they snorted without effect until they found a medallion certifying the contents as the remains of some cremated somebody.

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Graded on a Curve:
Mott the Hoople, (s/t)

The ballad of Mott the Hoople—the English glam band that gave us one of the most ecstatic moments in rock history with Ian Hunter’s “I’ve wanted to do this for years!” in “All the Young Dudes”—begins not in 1969, when the band was formed, but 3 years earlier, when one Willard Manus wrote a novel called Mott the Hoople, which rock visionary and total madman Guy “There Are Only Two Phil Spectors in the World and I Am One of Them” Stevens happened to pick up and read while in gaol for drug offenses.

We will never know what Stevens, a kind of manager, producer, and talent scout famed for his prodigious intake of mind-altering substances and eccentric behavior—his favorite method of inspiring a band in the studio was to destroy every piece of equipment in sight, or in the case of The Clash, pour beer on the piano—thought of Manus’ novel. But we do know Stevens loved its title, so much so that he saved it as a name for a truly special band. That band turned out to be Silence, which had been fecklessly wandering to and fro across the earth in search of a record contract. That is until Stevens, who worked for Island Records, saw something in them that no one else did.

That said, Stevens knew they needed molding, and he wasted no time doing it. The first thing he did after changing their name to Mott the Hoople—which nobody in Silence particularly liked—was dismiss vocalist Stan Tippins, and put out an advertisement for a new singer. The ad was answered by one Ian Hunter, a wild-haired punter who couldn’t decide whether he wanted to be Bob Dylan or Sonny Bono (seriously). He auditioned by performing Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” which made him just the person Stevens was looking for, because it was the crazed producer’s goal to create a band that fused the sounds of Dylan and the Rolling Stones.

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Graded on a Curve: Charlie Daniels, Deuces

He may have turned into an unreconstructed redneck jingoistic asshole, but once upon a time Charlie Daniels was cool. He played sessions with one Bob Dylan, wrote one of the funniest anti-redneck songs ever, and wrote another song about the South doin’ it again that was so jaunty even the ghost of a Union bluecoat could dance to it. Oh, and he bragged about getting stoned in the morning and drunk in the afternoon, and if you didn’t like it you could go fuck yourself.

But somewhere along the line he became a right-winger and a vitriolic patriot, a calling that Samuel Johnson once described as being “the last refuge of a scoundrel.” America can do no wrong as far as Daniels is concerned—his 2003 LP Freedom & Justice For All falls on the wrong side of despicable—and it makes me kind of ill because like I say, he used to be the kind of redneck country boy whose politics seemed limited to his belief in his right to wear his hair long and take the occasional toke. I’ve seen the same phenomenon occur with the band that tours the land calling itself Lynyrd Skynyrd; it seems to be an occupational hazard of being a country rock artist in these complex times. Unhinged by God knows what, they wrap themselves in the flag (see Daniels’ “This Ain’t No Rag, It’ a Flag”) and utter “America: Love It or Leave It” rhetoric, and it’s all rather queasy making.

Which is why I’m so ambivalent about Charlie Daniels. I love a lot of his music, and suspect he’s a sweet guy, but seeing what he’s turned into almost makes me grateful Ronnie Van Zant died young, because if he’d become what Daniels has it would have broken my Skynyrd-loving heart. That said, back in the day Daniels was producing a hybrid of southern music that mixed rock, blues, Southern swing, jazz, and everything in between, and say what you will, he produced some mighty tasty songs.

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Graded on a Curve: Brother JT,
The Svelteness of Boogietude

The first time I laid eyes on the pudgy and moon-faced Brother JT—aka John Terlesky, the Bethlehem, Pa., singer-songwriter who might just be the most undeservedly neglected figure in psychedelic rock today—he was rolling around a Philadelphia stage in a pair of black bikini underpants.

This was a long time ago, 1997 or thereabouts. A decade or so had passed since Terlesky’s first band, the Original Sins, had emerged from out-of-the-way Bethlehem to smack the Philadelphia music scene upside the head with a garage rock so ferociously fucked-up it even managed to win over the Farfisa-hating hardcore crowd. But by the time I saw him Terlesky—an intrepid psychonaut if ever there was one—had largely abandoned garage rock to play an unabashedly atavistic brand of free-form, acid grok rock guaranteed to conjure up images of Day-Glo hairies basking in the Summer of Love or cringing in the comedown morning that followed it. As for his albums, they varied; some were utterly deranged, while others were oddly domestic—I call these albums blotter gum—and at least one (1999’s Way to Go) boasted perhaps the most fuzzed-out guitar wank to come our way since the age of Hendrix.

What freaked everybody in that audience out was that this was no act; this Pillsbury Doughboy was obviously at least five stones from the sun, in keeping with the title of one of his better LPs, 2001’s Maybe We Should Take Some More? And he was testifying. To the power of mushrooms and the sheer unbridled joy of dosing yourself to a new way of being. Over the passing years I didn’t think he was capable of any more surprises, but I was wrong. 2007’s Third Eye Candy saw him make inroads into acid-fried funk and soul, and on 2013’s The Svelteness of Boogietude he continues to make forays in that direction, although he includes a fair number of songs (“Many Man Smoke,” “T. Rex Blues”) that would fit comfortably on his previous LPs.

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