Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
Rio Reiser, Rio I.

It is, upon occasion, the privilege of the humble music reviewer to introduce his or her audience to an artist they have almost certainly never heard of, because said artist hails from some god forsaken place like Germany, that dastardly nation responsible for spawning two world wars (and even worse!) my second ex-wife, who is a kind of one-person world war and against whom I hold a grudge because she won’t let me see our Chihuahua Rudi, who loathes everyone and everything and holds the world’s record for nonstop barking at 12 hours, 43 minutes, and 17 seconds.

Oh, I know that plenty of German bands have successfully crossed the Atlantic Ocean to our shores. Can, Neu!, Kraftwerk, Trio, Scorpions, Rammstein, Tangerine Dream—the list goes on and on. (See Boney M., who many credit as one of Hitler’s much-vaunted vengeance weapons.) But singer/songwriter Rio Reiser is not amongst their ranks, and that’s too bad. Part of Reiser’s problem was that he was a pop rocker and sometimes folk musician, and such individuals have never broken through to an American audience. What’s more, he sang in German and his approach was frequently sentimental. Finally, his music varied widely in style from folk to pop to new wave to protopunk, making him a tough artist to put a label on.

This is exemplified on 1986’s Rio I., the first album Reiser recorded after leaving the similarly obscure but great Ton Steine Scherben, which aligned itself with West Germany’s squatter scene, as well as its student and labor movements. Ton Steine Scherben’s radical activities translated into mass popularity but no money, and dire financial straits were one of the reasons Reiser left the band, leading to accusations that he was a money-grubbing sellout. It’s true that Reiser’s highly successful debut album put him in the black, financially speaking, but it also happens to be, for many of the German youth who grew up listening to him, a sacred document. My ex- may have had a Kurt Cobain poster on her bedroom wall, but it was to Reiser she turned most often, for such songs as “Junimond” and the great “König Von Deutschland” (“King of Germany”).

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Graded on a Curve:
The Fiery Furnaces,
EP

Leave it to the playful brother and sister team who make up (made up? They’ve been on hiatus since 2011) The Fiery Furnaces to choose the title EP for a full LP. Their perky and sometimes difficult but always diversified sound will grab hold of you, primarily because they have a knack for writing impossibly catchy melodies that brother Matthew Friedberger always manages to lively up in miraculously captivating ways, via some very quirky instrumentation that is as constantly surprising as it is totally original. Meanwhile, sister Eleanor adds lovely but tough vocals and always interesting lyrics.

Most of the Fiery Furnace’s LPs are tough but rewarding listens, but 2005’s EP isn’t one of them. With two exceptions, the songs are lovely and straight-ahead pop tunes enlivened by brother Matthew’s always intriguing musical backdrops. “Here Comes the Summer,” for example, features, in addition to a piano, one very distorted guitar, as well as a blurting something or other—it could just be some gadget to further distort the guitar—and will thrill you with its loveliness. The similarly captivating “Evergreen” is one of the most deliriously delightful songs I’ve heard in a while, thanks to Eleanor’s thrilling vocals, some great piano, one unholy cool distorted guitar solo, and a melody that is guaranteed to win you over. Meanwhile, opener “Single Again” is all synthesizer blurt and momentum, in which Eleanor’s disturbing lyrics about being abused by a boyfriend/spouse offer a dark contrast to the song’s upbeat tempo.

“Tropical-Iceland” is all distortion directed towards a melody that is impossibly catchy, and the best song I’ve heard in a while. I don’t know how Matthew Friedberger is producing those noises: synthesizer or guitar or synthesized guitar, or who knows; all that really matters is they’re strange as tropical Iceland itself. Meanwhile, “Duffer St. George” offers a similarly confounding array of instrumentation, and starts off as a pop tune before it goes hard rock on your ass, only to grow contemplative for a moment before Eleanor repeats, “Duffer St. George/And I don’t care/Duffer St. George/And I don’t… care” to the accompaniment of woodwinds.

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Graded on a Curve:
Sly and The Family Stone, There’s a Riot Goin’ On

By 1970, Sly Stone was no longer his happy-go-lucky, upbeat-hits-producing self. Stone and his band had taken to ingesting large quantities of cocaine and PCP, a paranoia-inducing combo it ever there was one, and Sly’s own intake was such that he carried his stash in a violin case. The results were predictable. Sly went from multi-racial inspiration to Richard Nixon-level paranoiac, and hired shady characters, gangsters, and even a Mafioso as a Praetorian Guard to keep an eye on his “enemies,” some of whom happened to be members of The Family Stone. Recording came to a standstill, and Stone began his infamous habit of missing gigs.

When Stone finally dragged his bad self into the Record Plant in Sausalito to record the band’s fifth album, the results were completely unlike any previous Family Stone release. What is surprising, given Stone’s precipitous psychic decline, is that the result, 1971’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, is perhaps the most brilliant LP he ever recorded.

Dark? No shit. Gone was The Family Stone’s trademark cheery psychedelic rock and soul, replaced by a raw funk—which would reverberate in the ears of George Clinton and innumerable future funkers like a revelatory crack of thunder—that was as every bit as murky and hopelessly disillusioned as it was bracing. “I Want to Take You Higher” had become “I Want to Bring You Down, Way Down.” There’s a Riot Goin’ On was a sign o’ the times—of riots in the inner cities, Altamont, The Manson Family, and the Death of the Age of Aquarius—just as his more playful earlier LPs had been signs of theirs. But Sly had done more than just tap into the gestalt; he had just recorded his Exile on Main Street.

There’s a Riot Goin’ On’s gritty, tape-hiss heavy sound was the result of Stone’s incessant overdubbing and erasures. The album’s unique sound also stems from Stone’s use of a rhythm box instead of drums, as well as programmed keyboards and synthesizers. Evidently Sly played many of the instruments himself, although you wouldn’t know it from the album credits, which include Family Stoners Larry Graham (bass, backing vocals), Greg Errico and replacement Gerry Gibson (drums), Little Sister (aka Vet Stewart, Mary McCreary, and Elva Mouton, backing vocals), Rose Stone (vocals, keyboards), Freddie Stone (guitar), Jerry Martini (tenor sax), and Cynthia Robinson (trumpet), as well as luminaries Ike Turner and Bobby Womack (guitars) and Billy “The Black Beatle” Preston (keyboards).

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Graded on a Curve:
Black Widow,
Return to the Sabbat

Way back in 1970, when witches still roamed England’s green and pleasant land, the band Black Widow hit on a new approach to the newly conjured genre of Satanic Rock. To wit, they downplayed the rock, and replaced it (for the most part) with folk, jazz, and prog rock elements, thus providing a less pummeling alternative for Satan lovers who found Black Sabbath a bit too ‘eavy, and who were looking for what sounds to the ears of the present like an unholy marriage between Jethro Tull and Spinal Tap.

And yet: I have come not to mock Black Widow (well, I may mock them a little) but to praise them, because somehow they manage to pull off the genre-bending on their 1970 debut Sacrifice, or as it later came to be called, Return to the Sabbat. (Long story made short. Vocalist Kay Garrett played on the original recordings but left before the release of Sacrifice, which the band released without her contributions. Decades later, the band released the original 1969 tapes with Garrett on them, and entitled the LP containing these earlier recordings Return to the Sabbat.)

I say they pulled it off, but there are a couple of unhappy exceptions. Some ungodly bad lounge jazz (why, they’ve even got a vibraphone in there) renders the tune “Seduction” risible, while the band’s chanting of “Come, come, come to the Sabbat/Come to the Sabbat/Satan’s there” over a Native American tattoo and Ian Anderson-school flute makes me think “Come to the Sabbat” is one witchy tune that should be burned at the stake. Wait, I take that back. Its Spinal Tap proclivities provide for far too good a laugh to be set alight on the village green.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Who,
Who Are You

1978’s Who Are You may be some people’s idea of a great Who album, but it’s certainly not mine. From its over-reliance on the synthesizer to its concessions to the Days of Disco, I never liked it, and find it sad that it was Keith Moon’s final contribution to rock before his untimely, if all too predictable, demise.

From the unworthy “Sister Disco” to the subpar “Love Is Coming Down” to “Who Are You,” which I have always felt was the Who’s absolute career nadir, the LP reflected, at least in my mind, a band falling apart at the seams. Townshend’s songs aren’t his best; the aforementioned “Love Is Coming Down” is downright saccharine (what’s with the strings?) and a cheap imitation of “Love, Reign O’er Me,” “Had Enough” is a synthesizer-driven and lightweight concession to the sound of the times (is that chorus wimpy or what?) rather than a revolt against them, and as for the synthed-up and mechanized “905,” what is it, anyway? Townshend, who spoke so eloquently of England’s “teenage wasteland,” with its leapers, zoot suits, and motor scooters, is here reduced to producing a song about a test tube child. What’s worse, the song isn’t very good.

“Music Must Change” proves its point, because if this dull and static number is music it does indeed need changing. It sounds, as does “Sister Disco,” like bad Broadway music. On the positive side, “Sister Disco” has some propulsion and a good melody, which is more than can be said for “Music Must Change” and “Guitar and Pen.” Unfortunately, that synthesizer has to go. As for the rambunctious but synth-dominated opening track, “New Song,” it’s as likeable a song as any on the LP, but its lyrics are a lie; the band does anything but sing the same old song with Who Are You, and it’s unfortunate because the same old song is far better than the LP’s slapdash combination of synthesizer madness, subpar numbers, and disco-rock tunes.

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Graded on a Curve:
Vegan Reich,
Vanguard

God help me. I’m three days into a vegan diet and horrible things are happening to me. I can’t feel my earlobes. And last night I watched Alive, the 1993 film about the crash of a Uruguayan airliner in 1972 whose survivors were reduced to cannibalism, and the predominant emotion I felt was not horror, but envy. Those people had meat in their diet. The only thing that made me sorry for their plight was their failure to pack an emergency stockpile of A.1. sauce into their luggage.

Why am I doing this? Simple. Because I’ve been listening to Vegan Reich, that fanatical bunch of imbeciles who took intolerance—against meat eaters, leather shoe wearers, druggies, smokers, drinkers, women who get abortions, and gays—to queasy-making degrees. Their philosophy, which they dubbed hardline and spell out in part on 1995’s Vanguard, made straightedge bands like Minor Threat look like icons of “live and let live,” but—and this is the frightening part—their melodic brand of hardcore brainwashed me, yes brainwashed me, into trying veganism myself.

The odds were stacked against me from the start. Why, I couldn’t even hack it as a vegetarian a while back. I subsisted for two days on acorns and thistles, and at a cookout on day three snatched a hot dog off my brother’s roasting stick and devoured it in a single glorious bite. It was almost worth choking to death. That same night I dreamed I was in a barnyard at midnight, trying to lure a chicken into a sack. “Come here, you clucking little morsel you. Pappa needs a brand new bag of chicken fingers.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Neil Young, Trans

What the fuck is this? On 1983’s Trans, Neil Young, who kept it so real on Tonight’s the Night it was hard to bear, decided to become a machine—less painful feelings that way. Or at least that’s one way of looking at it. Many of the songs on the LP utilize the vocoder and synclavier and hurt me just to listen to them, but it’s not the emotions they express I find so painful—they hurt me because they suck. Neil joined the computer age and didn’t go half way—Young has never gone half way in his life.

No, Young utilized all the latest synthpop technology available in 1983 to produce a futuristic album that left his folk-rock base scratching their heads. Hell, even the songs that don’t go all the way with gadgetry (i.e., “Like an Inca,” “Little Thing Called Love,” and “Hold on to Your Love”) don’t sound like Neil Young songs. Maybe it’s me; strip away the synthpop drumbeats, vocoder-altered vocals, and general early ’80s feel of these songs, and some, if not most, of them are good. It’s just I can’t get beyond the technological trappings of such songs as the bouncy “We R in Control,” the “this could be Ultravox” “Computer Age,” and the folkie gone techno mad “Transformer Man.” Crazy Horse guitarist Poncho Sampedro put it best when he said of the sessions, which started out normally enough, “Next thing we knew, Neil stripped all our music off, overdubbed all this stuff, the vocoder, weird sequencing, and put the synth shit on it.”

Opener “Little Thing Called Love” is “synth shit” free and bops along wonderfully; the chorus is great, the guitar and backing vocals ditto. The same goes for “Hold On to Your Love,” a very pretty and all-too catchy Young number of the folk-rock school. Then there’s the long one, “Like an Inca,” which sounds like a Steely Dan song to me. The melody, the pacing, the guitar sound—they’ve all got Becker and Fagen written all over them. Still, it’s the album’s highlight, even if Neil does seem to confuse his Incans with his Aztecs; oh well, nobody ever turned to Young for a degree in history.

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Graded on a Curve:
Joe Cocker,
Live At Woodstock

Joe Cocker, he of the spastic stage gesticulations and mouthful of gravel, was one of rock’s greatest interpreters of other peoples’ material. He didn’t cover your song, he Cockerized it with that impossibly expressive rasp of his, and once he’d Cockerized your song you never heard it the same way again. He did it live, twitching like he’d just grabbed hold of a live wire, at Woodstock in 1969, and again on 1970’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour, and the amazing thing is not that he never inadvertently hurled himself off stage in mid-contortion, but that it took four decades (!) for his legendary Woodstock performance to finally be released as an LP.

How was such an oversight possible? Did the master recordings fall into the paws of a rapacious monkey who demanded an exorbitant number of bananas? I don’t know, but their availability, even if it took 40 years, has made the world a better place. 2009’s Live At Woodstock featured Cocker with the Grease Band, who were backing him at the time, and together they create sparks.

Their arrangements are loose—too loose in some cases—but Cocker (who passed away in 2014) had one of the best blues and R&B voices of all time, and the Grease Band could cook, and the results are evident on such amazing tracks as the Beatles’ “With a Little Help From My Friends,” a masterpiece of shifting dynamics, call and response, superb musicianship, and pure ecstasy. And over it all Cocker, expostulating, roaring, screaming—he goes right over the top, Joe does, and it’s enough to leave you enervated when it’s all over.

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Graded on a Curve: Houndmouth,
Little Neon Limelight

Finally, an alt-country/indie rock band that I like almost as much as the Felice Brothers. Why, New Albany, Indiana’s Houndmouth even sounds like the Felice Brothers at times; guitarist/vocalist Matt Myers does a passing imitation of Ian Felice, right down to his phrasing, and Houndmouth shares the Felice Brothers’ country noir inclinations. That said, their sound has more pure pop in it, as they demonstrate on their second LP, 2015’s Little Neon Limelight.

On the pop front, for instance, the greased and groovy “Honey Slider” bears distinct echoes of the Wallflowers’ “6th Avenue Heartache,” the beautiful “Sedona” sends me, and “Say It” is a rollicking rocker that is totally irresistible. And the raucous “My Cousin Greg” has a more than passing resemblance to The Righteous Brothers’ immortal 1974 hit, “Rock and Roll Heaven,” as well as echoes of the Felice Brothers.

Formed in 2011, the band consisted, at the time Little Neon Limelight was recorded, of Myers, Zak Appleby on bass, Shane Cody on drums and vocals, and Katie Toupin on vocals (Toupin left the band to “pursue other musical interests” in 2016). Toupin’s loss is inestimable; her slow but luscious take on “Gasoline” (“Gasoline/It don’t burn as fast as me”) is killer, as are her shared vocal duties on “Otis,” “Honey Slider,” “My Cousin Greg,” and I could go on.

As for the Felice Brothers connection, I hear Ian and Company in “Black Gold,” both in the musical and lyrical departments; “I used to see her sister/Her name was Jenny Gasoline/I used to see her picture/On the cover of a dirty magazine” are Felice Brothers lyrics if I’ve ever heard them. The slow and beautiful “For No One” is another tune that could pass for a Felice Brothers number, and the same goes, to a slightly lesser extent, for “My Cousin Greg,” which boasts the wonderful chorus, “If you want to live the good life/You’d better stay away from the limelight.”

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Graded on a Curve: The New Basement Tapes, Lost on the River

Talk about your promising prospects. In 2013 Dylan’s publisher dropped some handwritten Bob Dylan lyrics from 1967 into T-Bone Burnett’s lap, and asked him to turn them into songs. Burnett recruited Elvis Costello (his Coward Brothers partner), Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons, Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, and Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops to write music for the lyrics. They called this studio collective The New Basement Tapes, and their results were showcased in a Showtime documentary called Lost Songs: The Basement Tapes Continued, the latter is which is a patent untruth and has caused me (if no one else) a world of trouble.

Don’t get me wrong. I love many of the songs on the resulting LP, 2014’s Lost on the River. But these songs, good as they are, are contextually about as far away from the spirit and results of the original Basement Tapes as you can get. The latter songs had an effortless, carefree, snatched from the air feel to them; they sounded raw because they were, and a good part of their genius and charm stemmed from the fact that Bob Dylan and the boys who would become the Band were just messing around in the basement of that legendary house in West Saugerties, NY called Big Pink. Theirs is a genius that is both casual and easy-going, and about as comfortable as an old pair of slippers; their songs are a tip of the hat and a neighborly howdy-do from a band of guys leisurely feeling their way towards greatness.

Not so with the songs on Lost on the River. They’re too carefully produced and have a studied sound, and it’s evident the New Basement Tapes took an overly reverent approach to do justice to the lyrics of the greatest folk-rock musician of them all. Awed by his genius, the folks who make up The New Basement Tapes have in effect produced a document that is everything the original Basement Tapes weren’t; produced to a T-Bone, they lack for the most part that sense of free and easy spontaneity that characterized the songs produced by Dylan and the Band. There isn’t a single song on The New Basement Tapes half as good as “Apple Sucklin’ Tree,” which I’d be willing to bet Dylan and company tossed of in, oh, ten minutes or so. The New Basement Tapes have provided us with a labor of love, but it’s the lack of that sense of labor that makes the original Basement Tapes so brilliant. Its songs sound found, not labored over, and the sense of free-flowing joy that emanates from that lack of crossing every “t” and dotting every “i” is contagious.

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  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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