Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
Chuck Mangione,
Feels So Good

So I’m riding shotgun in my pal Keith’s 1964 grey Rambler American outside Littlestown Pennsylvania with my pot-smoking buddies when Lenny leans over the front seat with an 8-track in hand and says, “Put this shit on. It will blow your minds!”

So we eject F. Zappa’s Hot Rats and pop his 8-track into the player and what comes out of the tri-axe speakers in faux wooden cases does indeed blow our minds because it’s some kinda vapidly upbeat bugle blurt of the sort that would make the IDEAL theme song for a wacky TV sitcom about a grouchy Nazi doctor living under an assumed name in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn.

“What is this flatulence?” I shout. “It sounds like somebody’s farting a clown!”

“It’s messing with my high!” bellows Keith.

“This is the music that was playing in the bunker when Hitler shot himself!” cries Dan from the back seat.

“Kill it! Kill it!” I scream, the way you would if you happened upon a hissing 8-foot Komodo dragon hunkered atop your stash.

“Aww, come on guys,” says Lenny. “It’s jazz! Don’t you guys like JAZZ?”

And so it was that I first laid rueful ears upon Chuck Mangione’s easy-listening landmark, 1977’s Feels So Good.

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Graded on a Curve:
Oingo Boingo,
The Best of Oingo Boingo: Skeletons in the Closet

Let me tell you something about myself, dear reader; when the first word that comes to mind when I hear a band is “zany,” I reach for my revolver. And such is the case with Oingo Boingo, the New Wave band who turned “wacky” into an aesthetic and in so doing charmed the skinny neckties off a whole lot of people back in the 1980s.

Under the leadership of Danny “I Make Soundtracks Now” Elfman, Oingo Boingo created a very skewed ska- and world music-tinged New Wave that put the emphasis on whiplash, herky-jerky tempos, quirky arrangements, and nonconventional scales and harmony. If your tastes run to the off-kilter and you like a vocalist who does his level best to annoy, I recommend Oingo Boingo wholeheartedly.

Rock critic Robert Christgau dismissed Oingo Boingo with the words, “These guys combine the worst of Sparks with the worst of the Circle Jerks.” Me, what I hear when I listen to 1989’s The Best of Oingo Boingo: Skeletons in the Closet is an admittedly mischievous mashup of other, better bands. The Cars, Devo, Wall of Voodoo, Sparks, The English Beat and a whole slew of other New Wave outfits I never cared very much for to begin with all come to mind. All of which probably means I’m not the fairest judge of the merits of the album under review, but hey–I get paid big bucks to listen to records and proffer my opinion on them, and I guess it’s just Oingo Boingo’s lucky day.

Skeletons in the Closet collects 12 songs from the three LPs Oingo Boingo recorded during their tenure with A&M from 1981 to 1983, and makes as helpful an introduction to the ostensible charms of the band’s early work as any of the aforementioned studio LPs. I’m listening to it on free Spotify, and it’s hardly an auspicious sign that I find myself looking forward to the commercials.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Masked Marauders,
The Masked Marauders

The history of rock’n’roll is littered with great scams and practical jokes that took on a life of their own; I give you Klaatu (they’re really The Beatles!) and the great 1969 tour of America by The Zombies (two separate bands toured the States at the same time, and neither was the real Zombies, who had broken up). And of course there are Self Portrait and Metal Machine Music, both of which stand as great practical jokes regardless of their makers’ true intentions.

But the grandaddy of all rock’n’roll swindles is the 1969 “bootleg” The Masked Marauders, which supposedly documents a top-secret supersession involving John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney and other notables held at a top-secret location near Hudson Bay, Canada, which was supposedly produced by (it only figures) Mr. Supersessions himself, Al Kooper.

The whole affair started innocently enough with a practical joke of a record review concocted by Rolling Stone scribe Greil Marcus, but soon took on the dimensions of a conspiracy straight out of the mind of Thomas Pynchon. Writing under the pseudonym of T.M. Christian (swiped from Terry Southern’s The Magic Christian), Marcus penned a review of the nonexistent bootleg in which he extolled its myriad virtues, which included Dylan “displaying his new deep bass voice” on a cover of “Duke of Earl” and an eighteen-minute version of “Season of the Witch” on which Bobby “does a superb imitation of early Donovan.” The same song, gushed Marcus, “is highlighted by an amazing jam between bass and piano, both played by Paul McCartney.”

The sham might have ended there, but fate had other plans. An excited public wanted to know where it could find The Masked Marauders, and an emboldened Marcus (along with Rolling Stone editor Langdon Winner) went the next mile by sending San Francisco’s Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band into the studio to record a few singles from the imaginary album including the aforementioned “Duke of Earl,” the Stones parody “I Can’t Get No Nookie,” and the Nashville Skyline parody “Cow Pie.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Deep Purple,
Machine Head

If I’ve never come forward publicly about the indelible mark I made on rock history at the Montreaux Jazz Festival in 1971, it’s because I’m still peeved that Deep Purple saw fit to slander me as “Some stupid with a flare gun” in their big hit single “Smoke on the Water.” Firing that flare gun into the roof of the Montreaux Casino may not have been the smartest thing I’ve ever done, but STUPID? I was EXCITED, and I just happened to have a flare gun on my person, and one thing led to another and before I knew it the rattan ceiling was on fire and all manner of shrieks were freaking towards the exits.

But enough personal history and on to Deep Purple, a band that I’ve always had reservations about. I find the English heavy metal avatars ponderous, plodding, and unduly portentous, and if you don’t know what I mean I direct you to “Smoke on the Water,” which is the very un-lightweight little ditty they’ll probably best be remembered for and which I can only describe as a very stoned dinosaur stomping in slow dazed circles to the accompaniment of one gargantuan and omnipresent guitar riff.

That said, Deep Purple–who after a lot of early creative experimentation and moments of serendipitous genius finally settled upon a sound that combined elements of prog rock and the grinding blues-based hard rock that would become known as heavy metal–had their moments, and lots of them are to be found on their sixth and most commercially successful LP, 1972’s Machine Head. From its very metallic (the title’s stamped in steel!) cover to its far-out boogie numbers Machine Head is one wild ride, what with Ian Gillian’s shriek, Ritchie Blackmore’s blazing guitar, Jon Lord’s “I am two separate gorillas” organ, and the positively intimidating drumming of Sir Ian Paice, who has yet to be knighted but certainly ought to be lest he become angry and start throwing punches.

Deep Purple originally intended to record this baby at the Montreaux Casino in Switzerland, but that was before, well, I’ve already broken my long silence about the fire that “burned the place to the ground.” After deciding that it probably wouldn’t be a very good idea to record their next album atop a smoking ruins, they retreated to the empty Grand Hotel at the outskirts of Montreaux, and with the help of the Rolling Stones’ mobile recording unit proceeded to make this surprisingly uptempo (by D.P. standards) piece of music history, which the very clear-headed Ozzy Osbourne has called one of his ten favorite British LPs of all time.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Mountain Goats, Transcendental Youth

The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle has a knack for the numinous; more than any musical artist I know, more than Van Morrison even, he possesses the amazing capacity to part the invisible veil that separates us from our spirit selves. His best songs brim with transcendence, captured in remarkably vivid detail and concrete metaphors that bring home the fact that we are so much more than mere flesh and blood.

On 2004’s We Shall All Be Healed he gave us “Against Pollution,” which offset a fatal liquor store shooting against a lovely and moving evocation of a final reckoning that is totally personal; “When the last days come,” he sings, “We shall see visions/More vivid than sunsets/Brighter than stars/We will recognize each other/And see ourselves for the first time/The way we really are.” On 2012’s Transcendental Youth he bequeathed us “White Cedar,” on which he sings, “Like a star come down to walk the Earth in radiant array/I saw the light of my spirit descend the other day/I was standing the bus stop on North East 33rd/When I got the word/I will be made a new creature/One bright day.”

Darnielle is without a doubt the best lyricist working in the field of rock music; a storyteller of mesmerizing subtlety, he has the uncanny ability to speak through his characters, who tend to be outsiders and down-and-outers who seem dead set on repeating the same mistakes over and over again but possess just enough hope to believe they’ll find a way out. Or in some cases, enough stubborn defiance to proudly sing while the ship sinks. I direct you to “No Children,” in which a man in a doomed marriage sings hopefully about taking one final fateful swan dive to the bottom: “I am drowning/There is no sign of land/You are coming down with me/Hand in unlovable hand/And I hope you die/I hope we both die.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Rivers of Nihil,
Where Owls Know
My Name

I don’t talk much about my Death Metal Years because they were very dark and I was frequently horny. What I will say about my tenures in such renowned Black Metal bands as Cannibal Infant and Skewer Christ is that they marked a time of deep spiritual seeking, most of it done the traditional way–by drawing pentagrams on the floor of the Walmart warehouse where my buddy and bandmate Doug worked.

You may remember Cannibal Infant for the immortal “Satanicon,” the satanic “Immorticon,” and the randy “We’re Horny (Touch Our Horns).” Hell, we might have actually gone places had Doug not renounced Satan (and the bass guitar) to pursue a career in floral arrangements. I’ve never been able to figure out why you can’t make floral arrangements AND worship Satan, but Doug sees things differently.

I don’t listen to as much Death Metal as I used to, but I like to keep abreast of the trends, and the up-and-coming band that most makes me want to go on a church-burning tour of Norway hails from, you’ll never guess, Reading, Pennsylvania. Yes, Reading, Pennsylvania, non-Satanic hotbed of your plain Amish Volk, who continue to speak in their amusing Pennsylvania Dutch dialect until this very day. I wonder how they’d say, “Bang your head!”? Wait, I know! “Je hoofd stoten!”

Just goes to show you never know where Satan is going to establish his dominion over Earth. Or more likely the lads in Rivers of Nihil are no more sons of Satan than I am. I’ll betcha they’re as decent and upstanding as everybody else from Reading, Pennsylvania, and don’t dabble in pot much less pentagrams. Hell, they probably don’t even drink their coffee black.

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Graded on a Curve:
Little Feat,
Down on the Farm

It may seem callous to pick on a Little Feat that was at its last gasp, but 1979’s Down on the Farm makes for such a good late-seventies cautionary tale. It shows what can happen when (1) a blues and boogie-loving genius (Lowell George) lets a couple of nefarious jazz-fusion infiltrators (Bill Payne and Paul Barrere) slyly insinuate their way into the driver’s seat, and (2) a uniquely American band with an idiosyncratic sound (the Band meets the Stones meets The Flying Burrito Brothers) takes an ugly turn towards mainstream mediocrity.

Down on the Farm is the last Little Feat album George would play on; hard living would kill him in a hotel in Arlington, VA before it was finished and released. In an interview conducted shortly before his death George–having finally come to his senses–announced his intention to continue on with Little Feat sans Payne and Barrere. Seems the rough-edged bluesman in him was finally putting his foot down, but it was too little too late.

It’s hard to know whether Down on the Farm’s cosmetized commercial feel marked a deliberate ploy for radio play or signaled a singular drop-off in the band’s once formidable songwriting chops. But one thing’s for sure: Down on the Farm is a vapid affair, and just another interchangeable example of the sterilized LA studio product that was so inexplicably in vogue at the time. It’s not Yacht Rock, but it’s not so far away from the Little River Band either.

The A side of Down on the Farm is a lackluster affair, but compared to the B side it almost shines. The title cut (which was written and sung by Barrere, whom George always considered the lesser villain) is as close as Down on the Farm comes to a winner. It has that good old Little Feat grind going for it; the groove is deep, the guitars have edge, and the harmonies are all in place. “Six Feet of Snow” (which George wrote with the Grateful Dead’s Keith Godchaux) is catchy enough, but like most of the songs on Down on the Farm it lacks edge and simply isn’t that memorable; without Sneaky Pete Kleinow pedal steeling all over it, this baby would hardly register at all. And Bill Payne’s synthesized accordion (I think that’s what I’m hearing) is too upfront for my tastes.

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Graded on a Curve:
JJ Cale,
Naturally

Folks take things pretty slow down in Tulsa; they ain’t in no particular hurry to get anywhere, and see no good reason to talk real fast like your Northern city slickers either. Ain’t nothin’ can’t be put off ‘til tomorrow, and that includes this here record review, which I intend to write at a slow shuffle. The late JJ Cale, who epitomized the laid-back Tulsa sound better than anybody–without even trying, natch, because trying is hard work and not how they do things down in Oklahoma–probably would have wanted it that way.

Cale inspired the likes of Eric Clapton and Neil Young, wrote a handful of songs like “Call Me the Breeze” and “Cocaine” that have entered the popular music lexicon, and in general left a faint but indelible mark on the American sound with his mellow blend of blues, country, rockabilly, and jazz. Call his music what you will (Americana, swamp rock, country rock, Red Dirt–the list goes on), the important thing to remember is that Cale was relaxed. Relaxed as dirt, relaxed as that raccoon sauntering at his leisure from your overturned trash can (keep hollering, he doesn’t care), relaxed as the oldest bluesman to ever pick out a song on yonder shotgun shack porch. Hurry just wasn’t in his vocabulary; take a potshot at him, and he’d have probably flinched slow.

In 1972 Cale, then in his thirties, finally got around to recording his first album, Naturally. Eric Clapton had just made a hit out of Cale’s “After Midnight,” and intrigued by the idea that he might be able to make some actual pocket change by being his laid-back self Cale found some time in his anything-but-hectic schedule to record 12 songs before, I don’t know, taking a long nap. Nobody would call the results electrifying, but in their own small way they changed the course of history.

I’ll say one thing for JJ–he simply refuses to be hurried. Hell, he even sings slow on the fast ones, and there aren’t that many fast ones. He’s content to shuffle along like an old dog to his supper, which isn’t going anywhere anyway. And this is both Cale’s genius and his downfall. If you’re a fan of laid back you probably love him. If you’re not a fan, like me, you find yourself wishing he’d chug a couple of cans of Red Bull and top them off with some NoDoz. Robert Christgau wrote of Naturally, “Push a little, fellas, it’ll feel so good.” I can’t help but agree with the guy.

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Graded on a Curve:
Brian Eno,
Here Come the Warm Jets

What a divine creature: In the first half of the 1970s the pre-ambient Brian Eno flitted about England’s glitter rock scene in fantastical glam attire, making an indelible mark on Roxy Music’s first two LPs with his VCS3 synthesizer and “tape effects” before moving on to create two utterly idiosyncratic art rock masterpieces with Here Come the Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, both released in 1974.

On the former album, Eno utilized a boldly original approach to recording that placed a high premium on happy accidents that were not really accidental; Eno very deliberately lined up a cast of studio musicians he felt would be incompatible with one another just to see what would happen. In his own words he organized the situation “with the knowledge that there might be accidents, accidents which will be more interesting than what I had intended.” He then doubled down on the oddness by “treating” instruments and doing a lot of heavy condensing and mixing of the recorded tracks, some of which ended up sounding nothing like what the musicians played in the studio.

In short Eno puts chance in charge, and like any good gambler chance works in his favor. Marcel Duchamp abandoned art to play chess; if Eno were to retire, he would no doubt take up craps. Not enough random variables in the game of kings.

Art Rock with a sense of humor and none of the grandiosity, Here Come the Warm Jets is a collection of beautifully textured songs filled with staggering performances by the slew of stellar performers Eno gathered together because he thought they didn’t belong together. All of Roxy Music (excepting Bryan Ferry) were on hand, as were guitar aces Chris Spedding and Robert Fripp; other players included members of King Crimson, Hawkwind, Pink Fairies, and Matching Mole. They don’t seem like such an incongruous bunch to me–Spedding excepted, there’s a decided tilt towards art- and prog-rock–but if Eno considered ‘em an Odd Bunch, well, he’s the guys with the ears.

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Graded on a Curve:
Sammy Hagar,
Sammy Hagar

I’m doing something no one I know has ever done–listening to a Sammy Hagar album. I laugh at him, you probably laugh at him, hell everybody from Poughkeepsie to Pasadena laughs at him, but is he really as bad as we all know he is without having ever heard him? If what I’ve suffered through so far is any indication, he’s even worse.

You might argue that panning a Sammy Hagar LP is like shooting Phish in a barrel, but let me remind you that the guy who can’t drive 55 is a certified member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, albeit for being a member of a band he did his earnest best to ruin. And I intend to do my level best to be fair, if only because while Sammy may indeed be (to quote Robert Christgau) “the biggest schmuck in the known biz” he also seems to be an amiable guy, and just the sort of laugh-a-minute fella you’d want to shoot the shit with while drinking his signature brand of tequila. Besides, he was the vocalist behind Montrose’s “Bad Motor Scooter,” and “Bad Motor Scooter” just happens to be a pretty good song.

But on 1977’s eponymous Sammy Hagar (his second solo LP) Sammy demonstrates the fatal character flaw that made his tenure as front man of Van Halen such a disaster–arch self-seriousness. The guy wouldn’t know a punch line if it was delivered to his kisser, and as a result Sammy Hagar is an overly earnest affair, and poor Sammy simply lacks both the smarts and talent to pull earnest off. A guy this shallow should never go deep, because his long passes are more than likely to hit the high school marching band playing in the fourth row smack in the tuba. Remember his infamous supergroup turn with the very law-firm-sounding Hagar Schon Aaronson Shrieve? Well, Sammy Hagar is just as bad, despite its inclusion of such “party anthems” as “Cruisin’ & Boozin’” and “Rock ‘N’ Roll Weekend.”

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