Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
Smog, Supper

I admit it: I haven’t listened to much Bill Callahan, who has spent the bulk of his career recording under the Smog moniker. But I’ve listened to 2003’s Supper about a quarter of a million times, and why, given how much I enjoy it, I haven’t listened to any of his other albums is an imponderable mystery, like what happened to D.B. Cooper, why the dinosaurs and the 8-track went extinct, and what exactly it is about the Police that other people hear but I don’t.

Callahan followed the patented path from lo-fi to high, although in his case the increasing sophistication was due less to shifting aesthetic preference to sheer lack of access to more expensive recording technology in his early years. He has however, stayed faithful to his relativity primitive songwriting approach, which emphasizes simple and repetitive song structures, and often eschews choruses. That, compared with his deadpan vocal delivery, gives his LPs a unique feel, one that is often simultaneously down in the mouth and exhilarating. Or, depending on your tastes, it makes them exercises in monotony, which are likely to send you running to something with more variety, say Prince or just about everybody, really.

“Feather by Feather” is a lovely and haunting slow burner of a country rock tune on which Callahan is joined by Sarabeth Tucek. The organ is pretty, as is the pedal steel guitar, and while I can’t say I know what the song is about, I sure do like it when Callahan sings, “When they make the movie of your life/They’re going to have to ask you to do your own stunts/Cuz nobody nobody nobody nobody/Can pull off the same shit as you/And still come out alright.” I also like the ending, when Callahan and Tucek sing, “And you are a fighter/You are a fighter/You are a fighter” and so on until a synth comes in and they repeat, “The kids got heart.” I’m not enthralled by “Butterflies Drowned in Wine,” which opens with some stop and start until it breaks into an enthused passage, which in its turn is followed by some slow country music. And so it goes, the tune twisting and turning about on itself and going every which way—there’s even a section where Callahan and Tucek sing, “Temporary sister and brotherhood” over and over again—and it’s just too busy for my tastes.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Felice Brothers,
Life in the Dark

I’ve said it before, goddamn it, and I’ll say it again: The Felice Brothers are the best folk and country rock group to come our way since The Band. Strong words, I know; but I’ve seen them live on numerous occasions and listened to their LPs more times than I can count, and I’ve come to the conclusion there’s something in the drinking water of those Catskill Mountains both they and The Band called home that is pure glory.

And I’m happy to report that Life in the Dark is the Felice Brothers at the top of their game, veering from hillbilly tunes to murder ballads to the best nonsense tunes to come our way since Dylan and The Band recorded The Basement Tapes in that famous pink house in West Saugerties, New York. Life in the Dark will break your heart, it will send you reeling, and it will make you smile at the sheer absurdity of life, and an album, no album, can do you any better than that.

The Felice Brothers are Ian Felice on guitar and lead vocals, brother James Felice on accordion, keyboards, and vocals, Greg Farley on fiddle, and Josh Rawson on bass, and they recorded Life in the Dark in a garage on a farm in the lovely Hudson Valley. The results speak for themselves; you’ll come away, I kid you not, from listening to Life in the Dark, with its rich musical textures and Ian Felice’s distinctive voice and always surprisingly lovely lyrics, with a new appreciation for the joys and sadness, to say nothing of the imponderable mystery, of this life.

As familiar with the folk tradition as they are with classic rock, The Felice Brothers carry the history of American music on their backs like a bag of gold coins, and happily empty that bag at our feet. “Aerosol Ball” is a happy-making number, heavy on the fiddle, tambourine, and accordion, and it bounces along while Ian Felice tosses off non sequiturs (“The rain in Maine/Is made of novacaine/In the Florida Keys/It’s made of antifreeze/In Maryland, it’s made of heroin/In Minnesota/It’s made of baking soda”) before getting down to business, namely his love for the “Doll of St. Paul/At the aerosol ball/She’s such as special girl/She’s been all around the world.” But I would be remiss not to quote the song’s most wonderful lines, to wit: “Well the cat ate the rat/And the beast ate the cat/And the boy ate the beast/And the beast made him fat.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Roxy Music,
The Collection

When it comes to who can lay claim to being rock’s most dapper dandy and consummate lounge lizard, Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry simply has no competition. A jaded Casanova who still harbors a torn shred of belief in true love in his cynical heart, Ferry has been crooning about finding something beyond sex in the discos and singles bars of his decidedly unsentimental imagination since the early seventies. With Ferry, the tension has always been between disco Lothario and true love seeker, and the game for the listener has always been to parse out exactly which Ferry is singing at the time.

Clear-eyed as only a realist can be, Ferry was declaring love a dangerous and addictive drug long before his doppelganger, Robert Palmer, came along to tell us the same thing. It’s something to be sought in the dark, in the red light districts and discos of our soul-weary cities, where everyone is lonely, desperate, and on the prowl. But as I’ve mentioned, there was also a believer in true love in Ferry somewhere, and the only problem I ever had with Roxy’s conflicted take on sex and romance was the fact that they spread all their best songs amongst nine LPs, one of them a great live album, naturally leading one to hanker for the very best in one bite-sized form. One of the compilations available to do just that is 2004’s The Collection, which includes most of the songs I really crave, but also includes some late period songs I could do without. Its chief advantage is its brevity; 12 tracks, no fooling around, and no “Jealous Guy,” which I never liked and don’t want on no compilation in my house.

You could say The Collection gives short shrift to the early Eno-era Roxy, and you’d be right; besides the great “Virginia Plain” and the even better “Do the Strand,” there’s nothing else from 1972’s Roxy Music or 1973’s For Your Pleasure. The lack of the brilliant “Re-Make/Re-Model” is particularly galling. As for “Virginia Plain,” it swings, plain and simple, although not as hard as “Do the Strand,” a great song about a new dance that you’ll surely want to do if you are, as Ferry is, “tired of the tango.” The tune boasts lots of great saxophone by way of Andy Mackay, some extraordinary forward momentum thanks to Phil Manzanera on lead guitar, and never slows down long enough to let you sit down, sip your Cosmopolitan, and stare surreptitiously at the beautiful woman at the next table, who could very well be a man. “The samba isn’t your scene?” asks Ferry. So “do the strandsky” instead!

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Graded on a Curve:
Suzi Quatro, Suzi Quatro

Before there was Joan Jett, there was Suzi Quatro, the ballsy Detroit kid who moved to England, hooked up with impresario Mickie Most and the legendary songwriting team of Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn, and crashed the all-boys Glam Party in full leather regalia, winning the hearts and minds of kids, primarily of the English and Australian persuasion, while she was at it. Quatro was a glitter queen and proto-punk all in one, to say nothing about being a precursor to The Runaways, and she scored a series of big hits in her adopted country, even if she never quite caught on here.

She was always her own woman; as she explained later, she spurned Elektra Records, who wanted to make her the new Janis Joplin, while hitching her star to Mickie Most, who “offered to take me to England and make me the first Suzi Quatro—I didn’t want to be the new anybody.” She added that if Most had “tried to make me into a Lulu, I wouldn’t have it. I’d say, ‘Go to hell’ and walk out.” That said, she wasn’t completely her own woman, being as she was part of the Chapman-Chinn songwriting monolith, although not to the extent of, say, Sweet; on her self-titled 1973 debut on RAK Records, only 3 of the 12 songs are Chapman-Chinn contributions. The rest are oldies or compositions by Quatro and her guitarist, Len Tuckey.

Chapman and Chinn more or less dominated the pre-pubescent wing of the Glam Movement, and it’s obvious why when you hear Quatro’s opening tune, “48 Crash.” Cool percussion, a great climbing riff—this one is simple as ABC but as catchy as a Venus flytrap, and the perfect song (as were most of their compositions) to sing along with. Meanwhile Quatro sings like a punk while bashing away at the bass, the backing vocalists repeat the title, and Tuckey plays some more than respectable guitar. And there’s no beating the great scream Quatro lets out in the middle of the song. Meanwhile, Quatro and Tuckey’s “Glycerine Queen” demonstrates that they were quick learners, not that the Chapman-Chinn formula was exactly rock science. Still, this one is stripped to the basics, rocks hard, and boasts a riff that brings to mind T. Rex. Once again the guys in the band repeat the title in the chorus, and if the teen in you doesn’t respond to this one, you’re not as glamtastic as you think you are.

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Graded on a Curve:
T. Rex,
Electric Warrior

Never got into T. Rex as a kid. I lived too deep in the sticks, and the only kid I know who owned a T. Rex record refused to tear off the cellophane shrink wrap and play the damn thing because that’s the way he was with all his stuff; he was saving it for posterity, or for somewhere down the line when it would fetch a pretty penny for being in mint condition. He’s probably a millionaire now. I thought he was a complete imbecile.

And the songs I heard after that struck me as a bit fey and simplistic; Marc Bolan truly was a dandy in the underworld, and I failed to get the whole “T. Rextasy” thing that swept England in the wake of 1971’s Electric Warrior.

Before that Bolan was an unreconstructed hippie, in a duo with the wonderfully named Steve Peregrin Took. Their acoustic-guitar-based material had a raga-like feel and ran towards lyrics about paisley unicorns leaping through peace symbols in the tie-dyed sky. But the two band mates had a falling out, and Bolan caught the glam wave, with a funky and more pop-oriented electrical guitar style and a flashier sartorial style. Indeed, he is credited with founding glam, after he appeared on Top of the Pops with a spots of glitter beneath his eyes. Superstardom followed, as little girls swooned and little boys prayed nightly for a pair of platform glitter boots to appear magically in the morning by their bed. Hit followed hit in a manner not seen since the Beatles, and it mattered not a nonce that Bolan and Took’s old hippie audience cried, “Sell out!”

Electric Warrior is generally credited as being the high-water mark of T. Rex’s career, although 1972 follow-up The Slider also wins big props from fans and critics. Electric Warrior was, as its title indicates, Bolan’s move towards an electric rock sound, with irresistible hooks and an almost child-like approach to melody. The journey begins with the shuffle funk of “Mambo Sun,” which highlights Bolan’s almost whispered vocal delivery and playful lyrics, and it’s good, infectious fun. Bolan stuck to the basics, with relatively simple grooves that might run the entire song, and it’s an exhilarating formula. Call it white glam funk.

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Graded on a Curve:
Sweet,
Desolation Boulevard

We live in complicated times. This was brought home to me years ago, when I TWICE found myself on board flights from Frankfurt to Berlin with the band Sweet. They were flying peon class just like me, and looked haggard, hungover, and very thick in the middle. But what complicated matters was this: while I knew they were Sweet (I chatted up the drummer, who was sitting morosely beside me) I had no idea whether they were Steve Priest’s Sweet, Andy Scott’s Sweet, or Brian Connolly’s Sweet.

That’s right. During those years there were three different bands calling themselves the Sweet out there, keeping themselves alive primarily by playing glam oldies shows in Finland, Denmark, Norway, etc., with the likes of Suzi Quatro. Now you might think three Sweets is four too many, and I would be inclined to agree with you, that is if I hadn’t just spent days listening to the band’s 1974 classic, Desolation Boulevard. Opened my eyes, it did. Sweet is primarily known for two songs, at least in the United States, but Desolation Boulevard has a slew of tasty tracks, even if some of them sound like uncanny copies of other bands’ sounds.

Recorded before Sweet exploded into multiple Sweets, Desolation Boulevard included original members lead vocalist Brian Connolly, bassist Steve Priest, guitarist Andy Scott, and drummer Mick Tucker. Formed in 1968, they quickly teamed up with the pop songwriting machine that was Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman, with whom they produced bubblegum hits with titles like “Funny Funny,” “Co-Co,” “Wig-Wam Bam,” and the horrifying, “Little Willy.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Too Much Joy,
Cereal Killers

I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for smart-ass rockers since the first Dictators album. Fortunately my doctor tells me that soft spot doesn’t pose a danger to my ticker, any more than the very real heart attack I suffered a couple of years ago due to, I kid you not, eating a single slice of American cheese. (It’s a long story.) As for power pop jesters Too Much Joy, I’m sure they’d see the humor in a cheese-induced heart attack, which is why—in addition to their hook-filled melodies—I like them so much. They love a good laugh as much as I do.

Formed in Scarsdale, New York in the early eighties, the quintet won comparisons to They Might Be Giants thanks to their erudite and witty lyrics; but their power pop props make me think of Redd Kross, who also fuse big hooks with clever and off-kilter lyrics. Indeed, it’s a sign of shared interests that Redd Kross wrote a power pop classic called “Dracula’s Daughter,” while Too Much Joy penned one of their own entitled “Pride of Frankenstein.” “Pride” is on Too Much Joy’s third album, 1991’s Cereal Killers, which I love to death thanks to several immortal tunes, including the catchy “Long Haired Guys From England,” the hilarious “Theme Song,” and the crushingly captivating “Nothing on My Mind,” an anthem that I rank right up there with such power pop classics as “Surrender,” “Overnight Sensation,” and the aforementioned “Dracula’s Daughter.”

The best tunes on Cereal Killers include “Susquehanna Hat Company,” a punchy number about a girl who’s a “mental hurricane.” “All you do is say her name,” goes the chorus, “Everybody goes insane,” while the verse goes, “Spun herself round and round/Drilled herself into the ground/Twenty kids fell in that hole/I was twenty-one out of control.” Meanwhile, “Good Kill” boasts a great melody and too many great lines to mention, so I’ll just toss off the second stanza, “Some people think Rod McKuen is a poet/Some folks think there’s evil folks and good/Some people vote to electrocute the bad ones/They stand outside the prison and cheer when the lights go dim.” Which I don’t think they think is a joke, God bless ‘em. And on top of that none other than KRS-ONE makes a cameo, to lend his own voice against what I consider a barbaric exercise in state sanctioned murder.

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Graded on a Curve:
Punky Meadows,
Fallen Angel

Well I’ll be damned. The last time I spoke with Punky Meadows at his tanning salon in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, the legendary pretty boy guitarist for the long-defunct “Anti-Kiss” Angel told me he had no interest in returning to the rock stage, and was solely listening to, and playing his guitar along with, country music. But over the intervening years Meadows must have changed his mind, for he has just released his first-ever solo album, Fallen Angel, on Main Man Records.

Interviewing the famously androgynous Meadows, whose hair was invariably perfect and whose pout could beat Ben Stiller’s “Blue Steel” hands down, was an enjoyable experience, largely because Angel—which released six LPs during its career, which ended in 1981—was one of the most histrionic and inadvertently hilarious bands to ever mount a stage. All-white outfits, a giant head with laser beam eyes for a backdrop, Angel and its label Casablanca Records spared no expense in putting on a glamtastic hard rock show. The boys even appeared on stage amidst smoke via lifts under the stage floor, which once led to a real-life Spinal Tap moment when a band member’s lift refused to work. As he cried for help the band milled around on stage, uncertain of what to do. You’ve got to love them for that.

You’ve also got to love Punky for his good humor—when Frank Zappa produced a song called “Punky’s Whips,” which was anything but laudatory, Meadows gladly agreed to appear with Zappa on stage in his outrageous Angel outfit, to play the very song that mocked him. He could’ve held a grudge, but didn’t because as I can attest having spent time with the man, he’s a nice guy.

Anyway, new album, wow. Didn’t see that one coming from a guy who hasn’t played since 1981, and whose attitude towards the music biz was best demonstrated by the fact that after the demise of Angel he turned down offers to join not only The New York Dolls, but KISS, Aerosmith, and Michael Bolton to boot.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Mountain Goats, Transcendental Youth

No musician has so artfully articulated the trials and tribulations of the lost souls at the fringes of America as John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats. He has released an absolutely brilliant concept album about a group of tweakers coming apart at the seams, another absolutely brilliant concept album about a marriage coming apart at the seams, and you get the idea. Darnielle, who has published two novels, has a writer’s eye for the telling detail, and no one, and I mean no one, has his ability to write songs that are like nuanced short stories—short stories that will break your heart.

Transcendental Youth is yet another concept album, albeit a loosely constructed one, with most of its cuts being about various down-and-outers living in Washington state. A homeless guy, a PCP abuser—why, there’s even a song about mixed martial arts practitioners the Diaz brothers, although I’m not sure why they’re included. Ditto the one about Frankie Lymon, the New York City singer who overdosed on heroin in his grandmother’s bathroom in 1968. But if the concept is loose, the songs are alternately defiant and lovely, fatalistic and haunting—in the slow and beautiful “White Cedar,” for example, a guy who frequently finds himself in lockdown sees “the light of his spirit descend” as he stands at a bus stop and there receives the word he will “be made a new creature.” That’s transcendence in the face of awful reality indeed, and it reminds me, as many of Darnielle’s songs do, of the late poet Allen Ginsberg’s lines, “It’s hard to eat shit/Without having visions.”

The fast and shuffling “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1” is a paean to those souls who are attracted to self-destruction, and after singing, “Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive/Do every stupid thing to try to drive the dark away/Let people call you crazy for the choices that you make/Five minutes past the limits/Jump in front of trains all day,” he adds, “And stay alive/Just stay alive.” “Lakeside View Apartment Suites” is a slow number about some guys holed up in a crummy hole “watching for the guy who who’s got the angel dust/Crystal clear connection.” The chorus is lovely, the detail is stunning, and it doesn’t really hit home until the narrator sings, “You can’t judge us/You’re not the judge,” then tosses off, “One whole life recorded/In disappearing ink,” which is far more damning a judgment than any real judge could make.

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Graded on a Curve: Heaven 17,
Penthouse and Pavement

Look, I’m going to be honest with you. I spent decades thinking Heaven 17 was Haircut 100, and vice versa. Not that I ever stooped to listening to either band, convinced as I was that they were insufferable new wave synthpop aesthetes, that “insufferable” of course being redundant. But I recently became interested in Heaven 17 after hearing John Darnielle of Mountain Goats include, in a list of impossibilities in his song “Cubs in Five,” the lines, “And Bill Gates will singlehandedly spearhead/The Heaven 17 revival.”

Cracked me up, it did, and inspired me to give the band a listen, and you know what? They’re every bit the synthfops I expected them to be. Glenn Gregory’s vocals have that intolerable early MTV “sound” written all over them, and Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware (both previously of The Human League) lay down layered synthesizers and drum machines so cold they’re enough to make you think Kraftwerk has, uh, soul. I’m all for their leftist politics, but I’ve always been of the belief that music and politics make strange bedfellows, except of course in the case of the Minutemen, for whom I’ve made a special exemption.

Their “sound” brings back the electropop horror of the early eighties, and they sound dated, like, I don’t know, Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science.” Which is to say, whether their music is good or mediocre, I can’t imagine anyone but someone who has been in a coma since 1981 getting down to it. As for 1981, it was the year Heaven 17—who swiped their band name from A Clockwork Orange—released their debut LP, Penthouse and Pavement.

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