Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
Van Morrison,
Blowin’ Your Mind!

Poor Van Morrison. Releasing your debut solo album is supposed to be a celebrity event, right? With all those months of needles and pins anticipation culminating in the birth of your first ever baby—your love child! Well, that’s not the way it went for Van the Man, who not only didn’t know he had an album coming out, but had no input whatsoever on what was going to be on it or what the cover was going to look like.

No, Morrison didn’t know diddly, and when he got his first look at the cover he said, and these are his very words, “I almost threw up, you know.” I like to think this happened in a record store, which it didn’t. I like to imagine the whole event from the point of view of the clerk working in the record store, who would have said something like, “So Van came in like usual, and I told him we’d just received a shipment of his debut album. And he said, a slight twitch in his left cheek, ‘What debut album?’ And I told him, ‘Blowin’ Your Mind!’ And he said, ‘Never heard of it.’ So I got up and took him over to the new display featuring the album, like, three times its normal size. And he proceeded to blanch. Have you ever actually seen a man blanch? He doesn’t turn white immediately. Oh no. He goes through about 40 very subtle gradations of gray on his way to white.”

“’It’s… it’s hideous,’ he said finally. Then he said, ‘I think I’m going to spew.’ ‘Spew?’ said I. ‘Certainly it’s not that bad. It looks like they’ve got your sweaty head in Roman profile surrounded by a bunch of shit brown vines and your name in some very tacky psychedelic yellow balloon lettering and… come to think about it, I suppose it is that bad.’ By this time he wasn’t talking, exactly, but delivering what I can only describe as an inarticulate speech of the heart. ‘Look on the bright side,’ I told him. ‘Compared to this, the cheesy photographic trickery that constitutes the cover of your 1970 LP His Band and the Street Choir is going to look good.’”

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Graded on a Curve: Cradle of Filth,
Nymphetamine

Life is really rather dark and well, gloomy and bleak and, to put it starkly as it were, abominable and doom-laden, isn’t it? I mean, golly, in this burial shroud of a world where every night is Samhain night and Lovecraftian horrors lurk around every corner, wouldn’t it be nice if somebody made music about how utterly blasted and totally hopeless things really are? Well, you can shout “la! la! Cthulhu fhtagn!” my absinthe drinking, underworld pale, smelling slightly of the grave friends—Cradle of Filth to the rescue!

If you’re familiar with the UK sitcom The IT Crowd you’ll know that it was Cradle of Filth that transformed up and coming young executive Richmond Avenal into a Dracula-like Goth banished to working at no job in particular behind a blood red door in the dank basement of Reynholm Industries. In one particularly hilarious episode, he offers a Cradle of Filth CD to a grieving widow at her husband’s funeral, kindly suggesting she listen to track four, “Coffin Fodder,” telling her, “It sounds horrible, but it’s actually quite beautiful.” Well, I tracked down the cut on the extreme metal band’s extremely entertaining sixth studio LP, 2004’s Nymphetamine, and it’s anything but beautiful. But boy does it shred!

Is Nymphetamine a rewarding listen? Do vampires enjoy the taste of human blood? Of course it’s bloody rewarding! The group that Richmond Avenal mildly calls “one of the best contemporary dark wave bands in the world” combines Goth imagery with unadulterated thrash and din to produce the aural equivalent of the damned French poet and dandy Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal. Dani Filth provides the requisite death wraith vocals; guitarists Paul Allender and “Germs Warfare” (aka James McIlroy) slash away like werewolves making mincemeat of your dear old granny. And “Martin Foul” (aka Martin Powell) adds gloomy atmospherics on keyboards. Add some high-falutin’ choirs of damned souls and what you have is lots of old-fashioned evil fun—I find them hilarious, myself, but on such songs as “Filthy Little Secret,” “Gilded Cunt” (!!), “Coffin Fodder,” “Medusa and Hemlock,” and “Mother of Abominations,” I’ll be damned if Cradle of Filth don’t deliver the extreme metal goods.

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Graded on a Curve:
Red Hot Chili Peppers, Blood Sugar Sex Magik

What are my criteria for a great album? I’m not sure I know, but I can tell you this—it helps if I want to put the thing, at least once in a while, on my turntable and actually listen to it. And by this standard the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “landmark” 1991 LP Blood Sugar Sex Magik is not my idea of a great album. Because the truth is I’d sooner listen to Kool & The Gang any day. Or Blood Sweat & Tears even. Sure I hate ‘em, but at least they make me giggle.

I realize I’m in the minority on this one. Everybody loves the lovable Red Hot Chili Peppers, who put the funky in alternative and wore socks on their dicks and in general made good time music for drunken frat boys and drunken would be frat girls and even briefly won me over with their eponymous 1984 debut, which brought the funk to the punk rock party with such songs as “Get Up and Jump.”

But the thrill soon wore off, at least for this guy, and by the time I found myself listening to the schlock heroin recovery ballad “Under the Bridge” 54 times per day on the radio I started rooting for the dope. I’m as sappy as the next guy—the Bellamy Brothers’ “Let Your Love Flow” is one of my all-time faves, fer Christ’s sake—but “Under the Bridge” is to heroin recovery what “Tears in Heaven” is to child defenestration and it made me, and still makes me, want to puke. Does that make me a bad person? So be it, I’m a bad person.

And “Under the Bridge” is far from my only problem with Blood Sugar Sex Magik. When push comes to shove, I only like two songs on the LP: “Give It Away,” which is so ferocious that even Anthony Kiedis’ leaden vocals (he definitely slows the flow, except on the song’s tag line) can’t keep it down, and “Breaking the Girl,” which is a bona fide lovely song that I never would have believed the Red Hot Chili Peppers had in them. It taps into the same vein of emotionality as “Under the Bridge,” but Brendan O’Brien’s turn on the mellotron adds a poignant feel to the song that sucks me in every time. Hell, even Kiedis can’t sidetrack the damn song.

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Graded on a Curve:
Dr. John,
Dr. John’s Gumbo

In my experience, New Orleans is like the sixties—if you can remember the damn town, you were never there. My first wife and I spent a remarkable night whose details totally elude me roaming Bourbon Street—everything after the first two hurricanes is a drink and drug-fueled blur. Wonderful town though—I would like to think I had a great time there.

New Orleans isn’t renowned simply as one of the fleshpots of Egypt—it boasts a remarkable musical history as well. And on 1972’s Dr. John’s Gumbo, the beloved Mac Rebennack looks backwards to New Orleans storied R&B, jazz, and boogie woogie past—and the work of such immortals as Huey “Piano” Smith, Professor Longhair, and Earl King—and puts his unique spin on some truly timeless songs.

Dr. John led a multitude of lives before he broke through to solo success in the late sixties. Session musician, record label A&R man and producer, narcotics dealer, and brothel operator are all on his resume, and you can add jailbird while you’re at it as Dr. John’s own long-time heroin addiction led to a two-year prison term in Texas. It speaks volumes about The Night Tripper’s rough and ready lifestyle that he was forced to switch from guitar to piano after catching a bullet left-handed while defending a friend, singer/keyboardist Ronnie Barron. I don’t know if you can hear Dr. John’s chequered past in his music, but I like to think I can.

From opening track “Iko Iko” Dr. John’s Gumbo swings, and the music never stops. As Bobby Christgau noted in his review of the LP, “If Huey Smith or Allen Toussaint captures more of the spirit of New Orleans they don’t do it in any album you can buy in a store.” “Iko Iko” is pure syncopated brilliance—between the Doctor’s marvelous piano playing and the great horn arrangement and the female backing vocalists, this one is a rich musical jambalaya that will leave you wanting seconds.

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Graded on a Curve:
Glen Campbell,
See You There

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON FEBRUARY 8, 2017 | The English Pre-Raphaelite poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti once wrote, “Each hour flings a bomb at my burning soul.” Before adding, “Neither from owl nor from bat can peace be gained until I clasp my wombat.” I admit to being completely flummoxed by what this Rossetti chap means by “his wombat.” Did he have, in his personal menagerie, an actual wombat? One that he clasped to his troubled bosom when bombs were being catapulted at his burning soul? Your guess as is good as mine.

But I digress. The point I’m trying to make, albeit in a hopelessly circuitous way, is that my soul too has been burning of late, and I don’t see a wombat in sight. I have a cat, but when I attempt to clasp him to my bosom he is immediately transformed into a furious blur of tooth and claw. So I ask myself; how best can I regain my peace? And the answer, stated as succinctly as possible, is Glen Campbell.

The odd thing is that despite the fact that I grew up in a rural backwater, in a town so small that the “Welcome to Littlestown” sign and the “You Are Now Leaving Littlestown” sign were the same sign and many of my fellow townspeople made those toothless rustics in Deliverance look like cosmopolitan sophisticates, the only country music I ever heard came to me via Hee Haw, which I would occasionally watch with the old man. That said, I totally loved “Rhinestone Cowboy.” It fell into the rarified genre of glam country, and I could never hear it often enough. That said, I’d never heard any of his other songs and was never tempted to buy a G.C. LP.

When I finally got around to listening to him as an adult, and happened upon such immortal songs as “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” I’ll admit I was disappointed. The string-heavy arrangements turned these great numbers to treacle. Distracted from the songs’ greatness, they did. Which I why I was thrilled to discover Campbell’s final studio LP (he’s still with us, but in the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease), 2013’s See You There.

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Graded on a Curve:
Kool and the Gang,
Wild and Peaceful

Funky stuff—and even more funky stuff—that’s what Kool and the Gang have on offer on 1973’s party manifesto Wild and Peaceful. Just how funky is this LP? Well, my copy has its very own musk, and I had an enormously difficult time with this review because I just couldn’t stop toprocking long enough to write it. From the whistle that sounds at the beginning of opening track “Funky Stuff” you know things are going to get wild, and they do. They do.

I’m familiar with Kool and the Gang thanks to Top 40 radio, which played both “Jungle Boogie” and “Hollywood Swinging” with wonderful regularity when I was but a young sprout. And how I loved them! A naysayer might interject that neither tune rises to the pure badassness of P-Funk, but said naysayer would be missing the point. Both of them were like nothing else on the radio at the time—their chanted vocals, fierce horn charts, rubbery grooves, and sheer funky strangeness (love roadie turned lead singer Don Boyce’s maniacal lip blubber on “Jungle Boogie”!) were sui generis, baby. They could almost have been novelty tunes, and perhaps in fact they were, but if so the novelty never wore off and never will.

Robert “Kool” Bell and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie” was without a doubt the funkiest song to ever hit this adolescent honky cat’s ears; toss in some cool guitar scratch, a relentless groove, and some truly deranged vocals and what you have is a song for the ages. “Hollywood Swinging” is a subtler beast; in it’s unique way it presages Kool and the Gang’s subsequent shift towards disco, but it possesses a sophistication—so many layered voices and sounds, such a cool guitar, and check out those horns!—that most disco tunes lacked. As for “Funky Stuff” and “More Funky Stuff” they’re more primal and closer to the bone—this is the kind of music you’d want to hear in a sweaty club in the nasty part of town, high on gin and juice and the sheer joy of Saturday night. No real lyrics, per se, just lots of nonsense syllables and interjections. And lots of truly funky guitar by band co-founder Clay Smith, who on “More Funky Stuff” hangs on to the same notes for almost the first two minutes just because he feels like it, goddamn it.

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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:
Spyro Gyra,
Catching the Sun

From whence, dear God, comes that stench? Could it really be coming from Spyro Gyra’s 1980 fuzak LP Catching the Sun?

I’m fully cognizant of the fact that as a musical reviewer it’s my responsibility to occasionally take one for the team, but I most certainly did not sign up for this. I am reminded of the abominable frog Jean Paul Sartre, who said, “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.” Because I was ear raped whilst listening to this shameless foray into El Blando jazz fusion treacle and I most definitely intend to do something about it, namely fling the album into the trash. After breaking it in half so that I needn’t worry about some poor trash picker happening upon it and accidentally being assaulted too.

Some albums you don’t wish on your friends. Other albums you don’t even wish on your enemies. Catching the Sun is such an album. You’ve heard of Yacht Rock? Well this is Yacht Jazz—perky, overly “bright,” watered down, anodyne, lamentable, loathsome. With the exception of the far too smooth but almost sorta acceptable on the disco level “Philly” and the ersatz funky “Cockatoo,” which I might find bearable on a near lethal dose of heavy tranquilizers, this album is pure schlock for puerile people, which may explain why it rocketed to the top of the Billboard Jazz charts in our Year of the Smooth 1980.

Catching the Sun is proof positive of H.L. Mencken’s famous dictum that “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.” Basically what Spyro Gyra did was take an already dumbed-down musical subgenre, jazz fusion, and dumb it down even further. Imagine buying a gram of cocaine that has been cut with baby laxative 43 separate times before you get your snout on it. The results are a sure-fire palliative for people with poor nerves—Thorazine for the ears, as it were.

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Graded on a Curve:
Nina Simone,
Wild Is the Wind

Nina Simone was truly one of a kind. A proud black woman unafraid to sing out about racial inequality—she would later say she wrote her defiant 1964 song “Mississippi Goddamn,” about the ugly events then occurring throughout the South, “in a rush of fury, hatred and determination”—Simone (who was later diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder) was notoriously irascible, tempestuous, and unpredictable.

Just how unpredictable? Well, she liked her guns, and once attempted to shoot a record executive whom she accused of stealing royalties. She also pulled a gun on a store clerk who refused to allow her to return a pair of shoes. (Suggestion to shoe clerks—give the woman her damn shoes!) And in 1995 she actually succeeded in shooting a neighbor’s child with an air gun, unhappy because she found his laughter distracting. On the political front she went from preaching nonviolence to subscribing to the notion of violent revolution, and ultimately left the United States in protest against the Vietnam War to live out the remainder of her life in Barbados, Liberia, and various European countries, most notably France.

But all of that—with the exception of her fiery political beliefs and adamant commitment to civil rights, of course—is ultimately irrelevant, because in the end Simone will be judged a singer and songwriter of prodigious talent. From her beginnings as a lounge singer in Atlantic City in the mid-fifties Eunice Kathleen Waymon—who took the stage name Nina Simone because she didn’t want her family to know she was playing the Devil’s Music—developed a style of jazz singing all her own, and while her recorded output slowed after 1970 or so she continued to produce albums until 1993. (She died in 2003 in southern France.)

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Graded on a Curve:
Iggy and the Stooges,
Metallic K.O.

What a disappointment. Here I’ve been hearing about what a definitive live document and astoundingly raw slab o’ Iggy at his Iggiest Metallic K.O. is FOR YEARS, and having put off the fun until this late date because hell you have to have SOMETHING to look forward to in your golden years I discover it ain’t all that.

Sure, the LP positively drips egg-yolk authenticity (“I’ve been egged by better than you,” says the Iggster) but when my favorite moment on an album is a cover of “Louie Louie” I really have to ask myself how much I love that album. And I once heard a better live version of “Louie Louie” by cult legend and very outsider artist Mikey “Mayor of South Street” Wild in Philadelphia, so put that in your crack pipe and smoke it.

Yeah, Metallic K.O. is “live” alright—you get to hear Iggy deliver such cracks as “We’re the hardest working band in the business, I don’t care we’re if the best” and—on the three and one-half minute waste of space called “Iggy Talks”—“Let’s hear it for the singer. I AM the greatest.” But beyond that I don’t know what you’re paying for, besides “Louie Louie” and an okay version of “Raw Power” and a just alright version of “Cock in My Pocket,” which Iggy says was “cowritten by my mother.” Which is my way of saying this is a comedy album, and while I love comedy as much as the next guy I dislike Lou Reed’s live comedy LP Take No Prisoners for a reason.

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