Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
Ed Sheeran,
Divide

As a music critic, I occasionally feel compelled to turn a jaundiced ear to one of today’s happening artists. It doesn’t come naturally. Like most old people, I find the tastes of the younger generation both inexplicable and appalling. Take Ed Sheeran. You could say I was prejudiced against him from the start, because I nearly inhaled an entire cigarette upon first hearing his big hit single, “The Shape of You.” But you cannot judge an artist based on one song unless that artist happens to be Norman Greenbaum, and after taking a few muscle relaxants to numb my gag reflex gave Sheeran’s latest release, 2017’s Divide, a listen.

And all I can say is the horror, the horror. Humorless, infinitely cloying, and crammed full of unpleasant surprises, Divide is not quite as edgy as your average LP by Train, whose vapid taste for the pop inconsequential he has clearly inherited. Sheeran’s eclectic bland (no, that’s not a typo) of pop, folk, and hip-hop gives new meaning to the word generic. I’m not some hopeless rock bigot either. I love Coldplay. I love Robbie Williams, for Christ’s sake. But this… this thing is heinous. Unspeakable. One of the worst albums I’ve ever had to suffer through.

Remember when Paul McCartney said the world needs silly love songs? Tragically, the carrot-topped Sheeran took Sir Paul at his word. I find it hard to believe that even McCartney thinks the world needs Ed Sheeran’s heartfelt love songs, which are less silly than cloyingly saccharine. Paul McCartney, to his credit, can occasionally make saccharine work. Sheeran is no Paul McCartney.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Residents,
The Third Reich ‘n Roll

Before we get around to plumbing the infamous depths of The Residents’ 1976 LP The Third Reich ‘n Roll, let us pause for this news bulletin: Hitler Cancels Comeback Tour

According to his record label, Adolf Hitler has decided to cancel his planned worldwide “2017 I’m Back! Tour” due to poor ticket sales. We caught up to the former Nazi dictator and Arista Records recording artist at his compound in remote Bolivia. Here’s what he had to say.

So what happened?

AH: I’m not going to lie and say I’m not disappointed. I could feed you a line of BS about how this will give me the opportunity to explore the limits of my talents in more intimate settings. No. I played the beer halls of Munich and I’m not going back. Let that washed-up hack Mussolini go rinky-dink. My ukulele-heavy sound would blow the windows out of your average Rathskeller, that is if Rathskellers had windows. I need arenas. Nuremberg Rally size arenas.

Have you given any thought to joining Josef Stalin and Idi Amin on their “Monsters of History” tour?

AH: Anyone who knows me will tell you I would never compromise my dictatorial credibility by joining such a circus. I am an artist and I will not perform alongside a cannibal. That said, I rather liked Stalin’s most recent release. I think his take on “Ventura Highway” stands up to the version by America.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Fall,
458489 A-Sides

Rock crit Robert Christgau once went on record declaring The Fall’s 1990 best-of compilation 458489 A-Sides the “only Fall record any normal person need own.” And depending on one’s definition of normal, he may be right. Certainly this would be the one I’d recommend to shut-ins, ligyrophobics, and that massive proportion of the listening public who prefer their music to be soothing as opposed to sounding like a particularly excitable day at the laughing academy.

But if by definition of normal you mean a person who has a jaundiced view of life and prefers his or her music to be at least mildly challenging—if not downright annoying with its insistence upon being heard as foreground noise rather than background buzz and hum—there are plenty of Fall records that are must-owns. These include 1981’s incomparable “Slates” EP, 1982’s seminal Hex Enduction Hour, 1984’s The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall, and 2005’s Fall Heads Roll. And that’s barely scratching the surface of the Fall’s formidable discography.

The Fall recipe of songwriting is simple. First, hand village crank Mark E. Smith a microphone. The long-suffering curmudgeon is the band’s only permanent member, and his definition of said band is memorable. “If it’s me and your grandma on the bongos,” he has said, “it’s the Fall.” But where were we? Oh, yes. First, hand a microphone to the irritable Mr. Smith, who is both a true individualist and misanthropist. And second, let him spew great gouts of indecipherable poetry and hurl strange incantations over one form of droning caterwaul or another. This homemade recipe has been working since the late 1970s, and continues to work to this very day. Because Mark E. Smith is holding a grudge, and that grudge is against society. Or life. Or whatever. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Smith is dedicated to rattling life’s cage in as irritable and noisy a manner as possible.

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Graded on a Curve:
Jerry Lee Lewis,
“Live” at the Star Club, Hamburg

When it comes to the strange and ornery case of Jerry Lee Lewis, it’s illustrative to look to genetics. And the fact that it could be claimed that Jerry Lee got his contrary and bellicose genes from his great grandfather, of whom it was said he could knock a horse to its knees with a single punch. But it doesn’t really matter where he got his meanness; all that matter is he’s a volatile menace with a police record longer than a king cobra, and is every bit as venomous.

Exhibit one: following a dispute between The Killer and Chuck Berry over who would open a show, Jerry lost. He proceeded to drive the audience mad, set the piano on fire, and continued playing despite the flames before finally stalking off stage and saying to Berry, “Follow that, n____.” Exhibit two: At a birthday party for Lewis, he produced a .357 magnum, pointed it in the general direction of his bass player Norman “Butch” Owens, announced, “I’m gonna shoot that Coca-Cola bottle over there or my name isn’t Jerry Lee Lewis,” and proceeded to shoot Owens twice in the chest. Guess he wasn’t Jerry Lee Lewis that day. And to add insult to injury, Lewis’ current girlfriend’s only response to what amounted to near homicide was to holler at Owens for bleeding on her carpet.

Why, the Killer doesn’t even give a flying fuck about you or me. A fervent believer in the firebrand form of Christianity purveyed by his televangelist cousin Jimmy Lee Swaggart, he is dead certain that playing rock’n’roll buys you a one-way ticket to Hell, and has been quoted as saying, “I’m dragging the audience to Hell with me.” Dress for warm weather, people.

Over the course of his long and checkered career Lewis has gone from playing rock’n’roll to playing country and back, but he has always believed he’s destined for Hellfire, as if predestined not for Heaven but for fire and brimstone. He makes all those satanic metal guys look like pussies; how many of them, if pressed, really believe they’re going to Hell because of the music they play?

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Graded on a Curve:
Little Richard, Little Richard’s Greatest Hits: Recorded Live

An American original if ever there was one, Little Richard (aka Richard Wayne Penniman) remains one of the most charismatic and exciting performers in the history of rock and roll. From his days in Macon, Georgia’s Pentecostal churches, where as a youth he was once banned from singing because his “screaming and hollering” were deemed too loud, to his days touring with traveling shows and singing for Macon’s own prophet and spiritualist Doctor Nubilio, who went about in a turban, colorful cape, and black stick (to say nothing of a “devil’s child,” in the form of a desiccated corpse of a baby with claw feet and horns on his head), Little Richard wowed ‘em all until he finally found his way to Specialty Records, where in September 1955 he recorded the song that would help make him an immortal, “Tutti Frutti.”

And the rest is history. Little Richard’s live performances were so powerful and borderline raunchy (by the standards of the time, that is) that he even helped to bring down the color barrier; his shows drew both blacks and whites, who started off in the mandatory racially segregated areas of the clubs he played but wound up dancing together by the time he was done. He was also known for his outrageous stage garb, including makeup as well as suits studded with semi-precious stones and sequins, and his wild performances and crazed persona soon led women to throw their underwear on stage, much to the dismay and chagrin of such rabid dog segregationists as the North Alabama’s White Citizen Council.

By the time his first LP was released Little Richard was already a millionaire and living in a mansion in Los Angeles next to the boxer Joe Louis. But in 1957 the self-described “omnisexual” who once said, “The only thing I like better than a big penis is a bigger penis” renounced his “sinful” ways and announced his intention to become a preacher of the gospel, which he did after studying theology at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama. He ultimately returned to secular music, and to secular hobbies, praise be to God, in 1962, and his performances were so outrageously successful that before long the Beatles were opening for him.

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Graded on a Curve: America,
History: America’s Greatest Hits

America gets a bum rap. I’m not talking, mind you, about the United States of America, which gets all the bad press it deserves. No, I’m talking about seventies soft-rock superstars America, the folkie trio who gave us “A Horse with No Name,” which Randy Newman famously dismissed as being “about a kid who thinks he’s taken acid.”

Personally, what has always pissed me off about the song is the band’s claim that the horse has no name. That’s balderdash. Of course the horse has a name. It may not be Trigger or Mr. Ed or Black Beauty, but it’s something. Vocalist Dewey Bunnell was probably just too lazy to ask the horse its name. “I’m Conway,” the horse would have replied. Or, “I’m Luther, good to meet ya.” Of course the horse could have offered Dewey his name. But a horse has its dignity.

But I have not come to pile on. If it’s easy to mock the gentle folk rock strains of Bunnell, Gerry Buckley, and Dan Peek, it’s just as easy to like them. You just have to let go. You know, take a walk on the mild side. The truth is I liked—and still like—America more than any of their soft rock contemporaries, even the ones with “artistic credibility.” Which is my way of saying I’ll take them over Crosby, Stills & Nash any day.

And I’m here today to urge you to run to the nearest record store to pick up a copy of the band’s 1975 compilation, History: America’s Greatest Hits. The LP has 12 songs, only 2 of which (“Muskrat Love,” “Woman Tonight) suck. And that’s a bargain at any price.

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Graded on a Curve: Journey,
Greatest Hits

You’ve heard of Journey? I advise you to stay home. That quip out of the way, please follow me to my anecdote: I spent one semester in college sharing a cement-walled dorm room with a guy who loved Journey. There are wrong kinds of love, and loving Journey is most definitely one of them.

But what really drove me over the bend was the fact that this guy could sing just like the singer from Journey, so that when I wasn’t actually listening to the guy from Journey singing Journey songs, my roomie was singing Journey songs in a voice that was like a body double of the voice of the guy from Journey. And sometimes, just to get my goat, my roommate and the guy from Journey would duet.

Ghastly it was. Every day I had to suppress an almost irrepressible urge to go Dostoevsky on his ass, and chop him into very small pieces with a very large ax. It would have taken some doing, chopping him into teensy little bits with such an unwieldy instrument, but I would have done it. He had it coming.

Anecdote over, allow me to usher you to today’s Exhibit A, Journey’s 1988 best-of collection, Greatest Hits. Please stand back. Do not let your fingers near the cage. Because Greatest Hits is dangerous. And I don’t mean dangerously awful, as I used to believe, but dangerously addictive. Once such AOR hits as “Lights,” “Feeling That Way,” and the immortal “Wheel in the Sky” caused me to retch on the record player. Well no longer. Now I sing along, just like my former roomie. I know, a sure symptom of rapid-onset dementia. Or perhaps the first sign of creeping senility. Life spares us no indignity, in the end.

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Graded on a Curve:
Little River Band,
The Hits…Revisited

Look. Let’s cut to the chase. There are many reasons I gave this album an F. It’s repulsive, reprehensible, repugnant, and retch inducing. And those are its good qualities. It instills horror of the sort that arises when one discover that one’s beloved has a vestigial tail. A ghastly moment, that. Enough to cause the hair at the nape of one’s neck to stand up as if the National Anthem were being played by a band of lunatics on plastic kazoos.

But confront it I must, vestigial tail and all. For I review records, and this purports to be a record. I have my doubts. To be honest I suspect it to be some vile Lovecraftian horror looking to shlurp its way into my home disguised as a record. If I do not survive to publish this review, no one will ever know how I died. A neighbor will no doubt find me as stiff as a board, a frozen look of consummate horror on my face. There may be defensive wounds to both ears.

The first thing I wish to say about 2016’s The Hits…Revisited by Australia’s Little River Band is that the album name is all wrong. It should be called The Hits…Exhumed. Most likely by suspicious persons seeking proof that the songs on said album are really dead, and aren’t zombieing around out there somewhere. And their suspicions are well founded. For at least five of the songs on the soft rock primer are regularly played on easy listening radio stations and listened to by people who want their music to act upon them as aural Valium.

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Graded on a Curve:
David Bowie,
Let’s Dance

In today’s Philosophy 101 class, we will discuss what is commonly referred to as “existential nausea.” The slippery frog-eyed philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, who came up with all this existentialist malarkey in the first place, wrote, “Existential nausea arises from the sudden awareness of life’s meaninglessness, generally arising from hearing David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” on the car radio. This queasy sensation of deep inner disgust is also a frequent accompaniment to exposure, no matter how brief in duration, to the Bowie smash hit “Modern Love.”

I love David Bowie. Would gladly lick the heels of his Ziggy boots, wherever they are. But on 1983’s Let’s Dance Bowie and partner in crime Nile Rodgers lost the thread, went off the reservation, and—how can I put this most brutally?—sold out, and in so doing hocked Bowie’s artistic reputation as casually as one might sell a long-ignored action figure at a lawn sale.

I am well aware that plenty of people disagree. They like the singles “Let’s Dance” and “Modern Love.” Your sensible soul will point out that Mr. Bowie was simply trying to reach a wider audience, and said sensible soul is undeniably right. But there is tailoring and there is pandering. By aping the MTV sound and altering both look and music to fit the tastes of as wide an audience as humanly possible, Bowie, the guy who brought us “Changes,” was pandering. Why, the man himself said as much, by describing the Let’s Dance period as his “Phil Collins years.”

Many a year has passed since 1983, but I still find myself engaged in vicious combat with the LP’s fans and defenders. At the time of the LP’s release I was definitely suffering from nausea, but not of the existential type. “Let’s Dance” and “Modern Love” didn’t just nauseate me; they made me want to projectile vomit. I screamed every time I heard—and I heard it a lot as it could not be avoided—Bowie sing, “Put on your red shoes and dance the blues.” Gak! It was his worst line since, “Time took a cigarette/And put it in your mouth.” That said, the difference between the two bad lines was crucial, in so far as I liked “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide” and found “Let’s Dance” repugnant.

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Graded on a Curve:
Pissed Jeans,
Why Love Now

I can’t think of a more soothing way to begin your day than by listening to the saccharine sounds of Pissed Jeans. That’s a lie. Pissed Jeans will wake you up, but much in the way a screeching cat landing on your face will. Because Pissed Jeans are the best noise rock band in existence. U.S. Maple, Killdozer, Cows—my pantheon of unbearable noise rock heroes is a small one. But you can add Pissed Jeans to the list.

Pissed Jeans hail from Allentown, PA, which tells you something right there. It tells you they were fucked from the start. And they’re angry about it, that is when they’re not cracking themselves (and you, dear reader) up with their affection for the banal indignities of being alive. “I’m Sick” has been a rock trope since Alice Cooper, but it took Pissed Jeans to take the phrase literally. Vocalist Matt Korvette spent the entire song whining about how he had a head cold, and how miserable he felt. The song is brilliant.

On most of their best songs the band sound like sludge moving slowly downhill, but as the whiplash “Cold Whip Cream,” the rocket sled that is “Worldwide Marine Asset Financial Analyst,” and “Have You Ever Been Furniture” from 2017’s Why Love Now demonstrate, Pissed Jeans can kick it out as well as your average punk band. Great, you say. Indeed, I say. But what isn’t so great is “Love Without Emotion,” which sounds a bit like Dinosaur Jr. minus the bludgeoning guitar, and wouldn’t so out of place on WPEN.

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