Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
Various Artists,
Repo Man: Music from the Original Motion Picture

There was no need to look for the joke with a microscope when the film Repo Man came out of left field in 1984; Alec Cox’s tale of a cynically blasé hardcore kid turned car repossessor who has a spiritual awakening of sorts while riding in a radioactive 1964 Chevy Malibu flying high above the lights of nighttime L.A. was a laugh fest.

But Repo Man did more than just introduce us to Otto, Bud, Miller, and the Rodriguez Brothers; it came along with a nifty little soundtrack album that is every bit as offbeat, hilarious, and ultimately transcendental as the movie itself.

Cox peppers 1984’s Repo Man: Music from the Original Motion Picture with everybody’s L.A.hardcore faves (Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Fear, Suicidal Tendencies, and if you wondering where X is, can you imagine Otto listening to them?), but also throws in a couple of real wild cards in the form of Iggy Pop’s tailor-made “Repo Man,” a trio of absolutely wonderful cuts by the Plugz, and the faux soul howler “Bad Man,” in which Sy Richardson reprises his role as Lite, the baddest and blackest repo man of ‘em all.

Perhaps the strangest thing about this soundtrack to history’s best hardcore movie is how little hardcore music there is on it. But this makes perfect sense when one considers that the hardcore scene is just the film’s starting point–the dead end that sends Otto straight into the unscrupulous arms of the Helping Hand Acceptance Agency and the company of Bud and Miller in the first place.

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Graded on a Curve:
Levon Helm,
Electric Dirt

Talk about your survivors; legendary Band drummer/vocalist Levon Helm was 69 years old when he released 2009’s wonderful (and moving) Electric Dirt, and he packed a whole lot of very hard living (and a near fatal case of throat cancer) into those 69 years.

But this proud son of cotton farmers from Turkey Scratch, Arkansas triumphed over it all, and went out on a valedictory note with a pair of twilight LPs (2007’s Dirt Farmer garnered him a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album in 2008) that did nothing but enhance his status as one of the most distinctive vocalists and drummers of the rock era.

Helm may have run with real slick customers (Bob Dylan and Robbie Robertson, for starters), and he spent his fair share amount of time atop the Big Rock Candy Mountain, but he never lost that rural twang. His singing was equal parts white clay grit, visionary yowl, and sly country swing, and it provided some much needed American coloring to Robbie Robertson’s Canadian songwriting palette–he was the only fella in the Band who could have pulled off “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”

The years that followed the break-up of the Band were no kinder to him than to anybody else in the group; he messed around some, landed a memorable movie role or two, and put together some great touring bands and played his ass off, but his recording career was spotty at best.

Which is what makes the last two LPs he recorded before his death so wonderful. On Dirt Farmer he reached way, way back to explore his folk roots; come Electric Dirt he stretched out and went the funky Americana route, and ended up winning the first ever Grammy Award for Best Americana album for his efforts.

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Graded on a Curve:
Sonic Youth,
Bad Moon Rising

The most shameful moment of my sad existence was not the night I came out of a drunken blackout to discover I’d just challenged an NFL-sized brute from my hometown to a fight, then had to literally beg him to not beat me to a pulp. Nor was it the time I ruined Christmas for my then wife by drinking too much sake, accidentally dropping half a gram of perfectly good powdered cocaine into a wet sink, and knocking over the Christmas tree before unceremoniously passing out.

No–and I still blush with horror to think of it–it was the time I ran into Thurston Moore in a Philadelphia record store, and noticing he was flipping through the John Coltrane albums sidled up next to him like an awe-struck schoolgirl and PRETENDED to know nothing about John Coltrane… just so he would talk to me! And this despite the fact that–get this–I wasn’t even a fan!

That was a personal low indeed, and–just to make things worse–I have often taken out my shame over this deplorable personal episode on poor Thurston and his band. After all, it wasn’t his fault I decided to be such a craven suck-up. He was just trying to be helpful.

With that out of the way, please allow me to say this: I still don’t like Sonic Youth very much. Sure I loved 1988’s epic and sonically streamlined Daydream Nation, but it was a stylistic outlier for the band, so to illustrate my aversion let us turn to an earlier (but also much-lauded) LP, 1985’s Bad Moon Rising.

At first glance, Bad Moon Rising has a lot going for it. Groovy scarecrow with blazing pumpkin head on cover, check. Groovy song titles portending cartoon chaos, anomie, and doom, check. Positively groovy Charles Manson tribute featuring the one and only Lydia Lunch, check! I mean, how can you go wrong?

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Graded on a Curve:
Montrose, Montrose

Nowadays the band Montrose is chiefly remembered as the rock boarding school one Sammy (“I can’t drive 55/With my thumbs stuck in my eyes”) Hagar attended before graduating to a disappointing, if not semi-disastrous, tenure as front man of the post-David Lee Roth Van Halen. How unfair. At their best, namely on their debut 1973 self-titled debut, Montrose rocked balls, kicked ass and took names, and established themselves as perhaps America’s best response to Led Zeppelin. As for Montrose itself, some consider it America’s first true heavy metal LP. Me, I’d go with Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, but that’s beside the point.

Montrose came out of California, where guitarist Ronnie Montrose—who played sessions for Van Morrison (amongst others) and did a stint in The Edgar Winter Group—decided to put his own band together. The finished product included Sammy Hagar on vocals, Bill Church on bass, and Denny Carmassi on drums. Ted Templeman, who played an instrumental role in getting the band signed to Warner Brothers, produced the LP. Unfortunately this turned out to be a mixed blessing as Warners, which made it a practice to push only one LP from each genre at a time, already had the Doobie Brothers (!!!) in the rock slot and Deep Purple in the hard rock slot. Without publicity push from Warners, Montrose got left out in the cold, and only managed to reach the 133 spot on the U.S. Billboard charts.

But you can’t keep a good album down, not forever anyway, and the Montrose LP has received increasing attention over the following years, thanks to its strong songwriting, Montrose’s great guitar work, and Hagar’s hard-hitting vocals. I’ve always found it exceptionally easy to poke fun at Hagar, but on Montrose he proves the joke is on me, by doing things with his vocal chords that are illegal in Mormon Utah. (No, I have no idea what that means either.) In any event, Montrose has received its just desserts, which is more than you can say about Warners’ beloved Doobie Brothers, who deserve to be tied to a large stone and dropped into some deep and very black water.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Police,
Ghost in the Machine

Well, it’s National Just Say Fuck It Day (check your calendar!) and what better time to cobble together a few slapdash comments (you know, in lieu of a real review) about a band I’ve hated since the first time I heard “Roxanne”? So without further ado, here goes!

1. The Irish writer Brendan Behan once quipped, “I have never seen a situation so dismal that a policeman couldn’t make it worse.” Which basically sums up my feelings about this band.

2. The Police’s bread and butter was cultural appropriation. Nothing wrong with that–they were never punks and they had to steal from somebody. I’m listening to 1981’s Ghost in the Machine, and what a sleek machine of cultural appropriation it is! We’re talking an overproduced saloon car with faux reggae seats. And a horn that, instead of honking, plays snazzy jazz horn arrangements.

3. Like most deep spiritual seekers who discover Eastern religion with their penis, the tantric-sex loving Sting has a lot to say about living in the material world. And like most celebrity spiritual types who seek to spread the message of spiritual detachment from the material world, Sting makes me want to seek Vairagya in a cheeseburger.

4. On the very, very reggae (and very, very boring) “One World (Not Three)” Sting sings, “One world is enough for all of us.” I approve the sentiment, I really do, but I would ask that my small parcel of it be sound-proofed.

5. Whenever The Police show up, whether it be at a party or on my car radio, they immediately arrest my fun. And then fail to read it its Miranda rights.

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Graded on a Curve: Soundgarden,
Louder Than Love

Sure, the best and most badass song on Soundgarden’s 1989 LP Louder Than Love (“Hands All Over”) sounds like it was borrowed from The Cult who in turn borrowed it from Led Zeppelin, but who hasn’t fallen in love with a copy of a copy at least once in their life? When these Seattle longhairs appeared on the scene I was convinced they had to signify SOMETHING besides what goes around comes around again, and they do—none of their grunge compatriots did half as good a job at melding Led Zep with pure battering ram noise to create a din that sacrifices such niceties as melody and catchy riffs in favor of sheer sonic bluster.

When push comes to shove Louder Than Love is more than happy to push and shove your ears around, and if it’s a good old-fashioned eardrum pummeling you’re looking for you could certainly do worse. Q magazine named it one of the 50 Heaviest Albums of All Time for good reason. Barbaric riffs of the Jimmy Page variety abound, which is great, but Jimmy Page hooks don’t, which isn’t a good thing at all. Most of these songs just don’t stick with you the way Led Zeppelin songs do, with the remarkable “Hands All Over”—which is perhaps the best Zeppelin rip ever—being the exception. Okay, so the riff that propels “Uncovered” is sticking with me, but that’s because it might as well be a Led Zeppelin riff—put it under the microscope and you’re bound to discover Jimmy Page’s DNA.

Soundgarden’s classic rock influences extend beyond Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, and Company. “Gun” is Black Sabbath heavy, while “Power Trip” reminds me—if nobody else—of the molten psychedelic sludge that Robin Trower was dishing out in the mid-seventies. As for “Loud Love” it sounds like a band whose name is on the tip of my tongue—Mississippi? Lesbian Boy? The Bee Gees? What is obvious from listening to Louder Than Love is that Chris Cornell, Kim Thayil, Matt Cameron, and Hiro Yamamoto spent their formative years sitting around smoking pot and listening to songs that should have been on the Dazed and Confused soundtrack.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Jesus Lizard,
Goat

The Golden Age of American Noise Rock (which this historian situates between the late 1980s and early 1990s) was a grand time to be a pervert. Bands like Cows, Killdozer, Halo of Flies, and the Melvins were spreading clamor, ugliness, and moral depravity across the land, and if you were like me you were as happy as a pig in shit.

Austin, Texas’ The Jesus Lizard were celebrated (and critically acclaimed) mainstays on the noise rock circuit, and they personified all of the best (worst?) aspects of the genre. Outré and outright revolting subject matter? Check. A relentlessly pounding sound designed to make mush of your cerebral cortex? Check. Deranged live performances featuring a psychotic lead singer? Check.

That said, The Jesus Lizard were never my favorites; indeed, I never had much use for ‘em at all. No, I was a Cows and Killdozer guy. The bugle-playing and unhinged live antics of Shannon Selberg set Cows high above the noise rock throng, while Michael Gerald’s demented (and highly literate) storytelling and Mouse Who Roared vocals, which were set atop a deep rototiller groove, made Killdozer the blackly hilarious piece of heavy machinery ever to steamroll human ears.

But The Jesus Lizard have their charms, and they’re on full display on 1991’s Goat. Produced by the ubiquitous Steve Albini, Goat is loud, pummeling, and chockfull of sordid lyrical content that is guaranteed to leave you feeling slightly queasy. Case in point: the run amok “Lady Shoes,” on which David Yow channels unholy voices while telling a simply horrifying tale involving a masturbating daddy, a homicidal maternity ward nurse, and a doctor who takes a shit in his own hand and then applies it as lipstick. It’s a real crack-up.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Association,
Just The Right Sound: The Association Anthology

The Association didn’t exactly win friends and influence hippies with their square-john antics in the mid- to late sixties; they may have been the first band to perform at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, but most of your smirking counter-culture types considered them about as authentic as a cheap plastic peace symbol.

But hey–as that great philosopher Huey Lewis pointed out it’s hip to be square, and all of your REAL swinging girls and boys know The Association are the Nazz. So what if they flunked the Acid Test and would have been more at home at Tricia Nixon’s wedding than a Human Be-In? The Association rose above it all, producing a rapturous dream pop that Tricky Dick himself might have tapped a toe to.

And you can hear The Association in all their vocal glory on the 2018’s Anthology: Just the Right Sound. Its 51 songs are a definite case of overkill–and I’ve docked it a half-grade accordingly–but it’s worth the purchase price (and more!) if you want to hear not only the songs that melted your heart but such berserker numbers as “Pandora’s Golden Heebie Jeebies,” to say nothing of a couple of cuts off 1972’s justifiably neglected Waterbeds in Trinidad!

Just about everybody knows their big ones. “Windy” is a sunshine pop classic about a girl with stormy eyes; its opening guitar riff and superlush vocals are for the ages, and I die a little every time I hear that flute. And then there’s the motorvatin’ “Along Came Mary,” with its handclaps and badass (by Association standards) vocals. And who could forget the moon-eyed “Cherish,” which makes the perfect mate for the lovely “Never My Love,” both of which say I’m going to love you forever by means of those perfectly pureed vocals that were The Association’s bread and butter.

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Graded on a Curve:
Roger Daltrey,
Ride a Rock Horse

Talk about your Trojan Horses; that cover, with Roger the Rock Centaur on it, may look like a gift, but bring this baby into your house and I guarantee it will stink up your living room.

1975’s Ride a Rock Horse is a spavined affair; Daltrey is less half horse than half flounder. And it makes clear one thing; Daltrey, no songwriter himself, is a great interpreter of other people’s songs so long as those other people is Pete Townshend.

Townshend wrote his Who songs with Daltrey in mind; Roger was just another weapon in Pete’s musical armamentarium, and a damn good one at that. But take Daltrey away from Townshend and he sounds at loose ends.

If you’re going to be a great interpreter you’d better know how to pick ‘em, and things might have been different had Daltrey taken the Joe Cocker route and set himself to the task of interpreting great songs. Instead he opted for a very lackluster bunch of tunes (by the immortal likes of Russ Ballard, Paul Korda, etc.) and tried to breathe life into him with his rock historic tonsils. I suspect hubris was to blame, but the strain of artificial resuscitation is evident on just about every song on Ride a Rock Horse.

And it’s not like Daltrey bothered to assemble a crack bunch of musicians to back him up, either. A few of the musicians credited ring faint bells in my head, but this is anything but a Roger Daltrey and Famous Friends affair. Hell, what good is it to be a Rock God if you can’t call in a few favors?

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Graded on a Curve:
Elton John,
17-11-70

Everything you need (but probably don’t) know about the pre-Captain Fantastic Elton John is right here on 1971’s 17-11-70, the live radio concert recorded before he became a household name. The album includes John, bassist Dee Murray, and drummer Nigel Olsson performing a bunch of excellent songs you’ve likely never heard of, and the ferociousness of their performance is illustrated by the fact that John cut his hand during the performance, and by show’s end the keyboards were covered in blood. Who would have thought that the pudgy and balding Sir Elton, who went on to become the ultimate caricature of a pop star on the basis of a lot of great but lightweight tunes, had it in him?

Well, I did, but I’ve loved this album since I was a teen, because on it John sings and shouts, and cries and moans, while doing things on the piano that made it possible for the trio to do without a guitarist. In short, he rocks and he rolls, and plays it like he means it; the glam pop camp—nobody ever took him as seriously as those Glam Gods Bowie and Bolan—he would come to exemplify, while I love it, is nowhere in sight.

John himself would later declare this was his favorite live concert, and it’s the only live John show to highlight the sound of his band before they added guitarist Davey Johnstone. The actual concert was longer, and this “artifact” was released only to counter the bootlegs of the show that were flooding the market. I’m reviewing the 1996 edition of the LP, which changed the order of the songs and added “Amoreena” as a bonus track. Original producer Gus Dudgeon also remixed the tracks, adding some echo and other effects.

17-11-70 includes a version of the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women” that features some acapella vocals from the group at the beginning, some great vocals by John (including a wonderful “Whoo!), and one helluva piano solo that demonstrates without a doubt that John was aware of that instrument’s percussive potentialities. I love the way the band goes into double time at the end, just as I love his piano antics on “Bad Side of the Moon,” a bona fide rocker that highlights the drumming of Olsson and John’s ability to hit the notes vocally, whether they be low or high. And the song goes out on a wild note. As for “Amoreena,” it’s a rocker too, with a great chorus in which Elton’s every word cuts like a knife.

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Graded on a Curve:
Talking Heads,
Naked

I’ve often wondered why I turned my fickle back on the Talking Heads and now I have the answer: Naked. Listening to this 1988 studio LP (their last) for the first time in decades reminds me of what a bad taste it left in my ears, convincing me that David Byrne and Company, who’d brought me so much pleasure over the years, had nothing more to offer.

Naked is not a total waste of perfectly good vinyl by any means, but it has huge problems, the biggest of which is that it’s–how to best say this?–boring. Only one song–the cosmic ecological disaster comedy “(Nothing But) Flowers”–holds its own against the best of the Talking Heads’ earlier work, and it’s a sunny outlier on this anything but perky LP.

Say what you will about such semi-dirges as “The Democratic Circus,” “The Facts of Life,” and “Mommy Daddy You and I,” they don’t exactly boast enraptured melodies that suck me in. In fact they push me away, and the same goes for “Sax and Violins” (a bad pun, David? Really?) and “Cool Water,” which is anything but a long tall glass of. As for the very moribund “Bill,” it makes me want to shoot my eye out with a bb gun. Anything to remind myself I’m alive, you know?

No, no matter how you spin it, Naked’s a bummer. Sure you get a lot of nice textures and what not, but what I always liked most about our David was his demented energy. Whether he was playing the hilarious paranoid of the early albums (Fear of Music may be the greatest comedy record ever) or the wild-eyed mystic of Remain in Light, Byrne was always spastic electric, an articulate twitch with his nerves on the wrong side of his skin.

But Byrne gave up on the funk and went into a funk on Naked, and it tells. Why, the man sounds like he’s in the middle of a communication breakdown, and simply can’t be bothered to make people dance. Or smile even.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Cars, The Cars

I’ve always hated The Cars for no particular reason, the same way I’ve always hated Pauly Shore for no particular reason. Except I have lots of good reasons for hating Pauly Shore, and come to think of it I have at least one good reason to hate The Cars too–they embody all of the worst attributes of New Wave to me.

Their cold, hard, airbrushed music strikes an anti-human note to my ears–it’s all so mannered and manicured and metronomic and perfect, the sound of a Lamborghini being operated under scientific conditions on an antiseptic indoor racetrack in neutral Switzerland, where all the trains run on time.

When it comes to diagnosing the problem I have with The Cars, allow me to turn to that great rock ’n’ roll doctor Keith Richards, who once said, “Everyone talks about rock these days; the problem is they forget about the roll.” And there you have The Cars in a nutshell. “Good Times Roll” is a pretty good rock song, but there’s no roll in it; it’s all machine-tooled detachment and metronome, rock for robots wearing skinny piano-key ties.

But hey, lots of people want to be robots, and who can blame ‘em? Robots don’t have to feel, and being human is a walk in the park only if you ignore the eyes of all those sager-toothed emotions ready to pounce from the bushes.

So who am I to gainsay The Cars? They’re great at what they do, and what they do on their 1978 debut The Cars is assembly line a uniquely sanitized brand of mid-tempo New Wave music (the closest these guys get to punk get up and go is “Don’t Cha Stop”) designed not to make you feel, but to make you not feel; only on the brilliantly dark “All Mixed Up” do I sense even the faintest traces of human emotion, and I’ll betcha Ric Ocasek is still beating himself up about it.

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Graded on a Curve:
Hall & Oates,
H2O

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:
The Hollies,
The Hollies’ Greatest Hits

When it comes to scrumptious English pop confections, it’s hard to top the fluff produced by The Hollies on the Epic and Imperial labels during the mid-sixties. While their contemporaries were producing big psychedelic statements, these Manchurian lads were whipping up irresistible little ditties that were pure froth–”Carrie Anne” is one of the most innocent and loving slice of pure popcraft ever recorded.

And 1973’s The Hollies’ Greatest Hits offers a wonderful–if inherently limited–overview of the Hollies’ not-so-grand ambitions. These proud lightweights adhered like superglue to the format of the 3-minute pop song–“He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” is a serious outlier at 4 minutes, 19 seconds–but they knew how to make those 3 minutes count. A whole hell of lot happens in “Dear Eloise,” and the deliriously dizzy-making “On a Carousel” contains gorgeous multitudes. When it comes to great songwriting teams, the names of Allan Clarke, Tony Hicks, and Graham Nash should never be forgotten.

It goes without saying that this compilation will not appeal to existentialists, hard rockers, or people who recoil at the word “cute.” That said, the LP doesn’t play up the cute as much as it might have. I can certainly understand why such post-Nash compositions as 1969’s heavy-on-the-soul “He Ain’t Heavy,” 1972’s lovely but lugubrious “Long Dark Road,” and that same year’s surprisingly hard rocking “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” are included herein, but they don’t feel much at home; a comp that focused solely on the Nash-era Hollies would sound more of a piece, and would provide more pure pop pleasure to people looking for frothy pop thrills.

I also wish this greatest hits didn’t jump back and forth in time in a craven effort to put the more recognizable hits up front; side two starts with a song from 1969 followed by three songs from 1967, then fast forwards to two songs from 1972. But hey, that’s show business, and I can only presume that the folks who put the comp together–and omitted some great U.K.-only hits in the process–knew best.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Moody Blues:
Days of Future Passed

1967 was a year of grand experiments: from London to L.A. turned-on pop artists were holed up in their studios like Dr. Frankenstein in his castle top laboratory, waiting for lightening to strike in the hopes of creating… monsters. Lofty concepts were the order of the day, and everywhere you looked the lofty concepts worked.

Except!

In November of that halcyon year The Moody Blues released Days of Future Passed, that so-called masterpiece of symphonic glop that fused Pop to Mantovani and inspired numerous others to round up perfectly innocent classical orchestras for their own nefarious purposes.

The Moody Blues’ collaboration with the London Festival Orchestra set an evil precedent, but to me it stands guilty of a far more heinous crime. To wit, the orchestra’s contributions (most of which were written by the Moodies, with the occasional assist from conductor Peter Knight) are populist, easy-listening treacle, and the treacle literally swallows up the couple of very good songs on the LP.

The Moody Blues don’t help matters any–Mike Pinder’s portentous “recitation” at the end of “The Day Begins” is a regrettable pomposity, and remains one of the most inadvertently hilarious moments in rock history. I wish the Moodys had gone all out and corralled Vincent Price to recite the damned thing; what a joy it would be to hear him say, “Cold hearted orb that rules the night/Removes the colors from our sight/Red is gray and yellow white,” and then follow it with a diabolical cackle.

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  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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