Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve: The Allman Brothers, 20th Century Masters, The Millennium Collection: The Best of the Allman Brothers Band

On my way home from the gym just now, the local college radio station played “Summer Breeze,” and it was everything I could do not to flatten the accelerator and run my car straight into a tree. Which naturally got me to thinking about the Allman Brothers Band, and how they lost not one but two members to motorcycle accidents, making the them (in my opinion) the second most unlucky band in rock history, right behind Lynyrd Skynyrd. I say second because while the Allmans managed to turn out some great LPs after the death of founder and legendary guitarist Duane Allman, Lynyrd Skynyrd was more or less dead in the water after their 1977 plane crash, although they’ve carried on and continue to sully poor Ronnie Van Zant’s legacy by producing meat and potatoes rock that omits the meat.

I’m probably talking out of my ass here, but I have always been of the opinion that there are two schools of Allman Brothers Band fans. The first totally dug the interminable blues songs, as personified by the long-stemmers on 1971’s At Fillmore East, that showed off Duane’s chops in all their brilliance but left souls with short attention spans like yours truly cold, while the second dug the Allman’s fine collection of shorter and less bluesy originals, which showed more country and boogie influences, as exemplified by the exquisitely beautiful tunes on 1973’s Brothers and Sisters.

Because I fall into the second category, this “best of” compilation more or less satisfies all of my Allmans’ needs. It’s tilted just slightly towards the post-Duane Allman Brothers Band, and doesn’t include a single long blues jam—even the frequently interminable “Whipping Post” is from the band’s 1969 studio debut and only five plus minutes here—which means if what you want is to hear Duane lay down the law at length you’re better looking elsewhere, namely to one of the several live recordings of the band in 1971. No, this one emphasizes the more melodic and “pretty” (for lack of a better word) side of the band, which includes such lovely standards as “Melissa,” “Blue Sky,” and “Jessica,” as well as the countrified Dickey Betts’ standard “Ramblin’ Man.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Ralph Stanley,
Best of the Best

When I was a young’un growing up in the dark hollers of Adams County, Pennsylvania, my granddaddy used to sit out on the sagging wooden front porch of his shotgun shack, take a sip of shine from a Mason jar, then pick up his battered banjo and commence to playing some good old-timey gospel bluegrass. They were doom-laden songs, many of ‘em, but the one I remember best went:

I was a sittin’ in a bar / In old Jericho / When in walked a stranger / Didn’t nobody know / And all our eyes followed as he ambled in / Because he was wearing the mullet of sin

Mullet of sin / Mullet of sin / Lord please remove this mullet of sin

The stranger sat down beside me / His eyes were fire red / Said I got a plan / To make us some bread / I had not a nickel, so said count me in / To that rank stranger with his mullet of sin

Mullet of sin / Mullet of sin / Lord please remove this mullet of sin

We robbed us a bank / Down in old Harney town / And while we was in there / That stranger shot a poor mother down / Now I’m spending my life in this cold and dark prison / Weeping and wearing my mullet of sin

Okay, so I just made that up. But I loves me some old gospel bluegrass, and you can’t do much better than Ralph Stanley, who preferred to call what he played “mountain music,” played one hell of a clawhammer banjo (I tried to learn the technique once, but I’ll be damned if that clawhammer didn’t reduce my poor banjo to kindling), and had a high, lonesome wail of a voice capable of calling down all the saints from Heaven. Made his name, with his older brother Carter, both of ‘em born in rural Stratton, Virginia, with the Clinch Mountain Boys, and were broadcast directly to your old 32-volt farm radio via WCYB in Bristol, Virginia.

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Graded on a Curve:
Bob Weir, Ace

The dawn of the seventies marked the Golden Age of tie-dye. From the free festival to the freak-out tent emanated the sounds of Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, both stone classics by the Grateful Dead, who were at the absolute top of their game. As if that weren’t enough, Bob Weir also went off to record a solo album, 1972’s Ace, that was pretty damn good too, even if it was a solo record in name only, as its players included all of the members of the Grateful Dead except Ron “Pigpen” McKernan.

What made it different from your standard Dead album, really, were two things. First, Weir handled all the lead vocals. And second, the bulk of the songs listed John Barlow, rather than Robert Hunter, as lyricist. It was this utilization of the Grateful Dead, rather than a studio full of big names or even small names, that led the critic Robert Christgau to call Ace “the third in a series that began with Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty.

But is it really THAT good? Not by my reckoning, it isn’t. It has its share of songs that would later become live Dead staples, but it has one great drawback, and that’s Bob Weir’s voice. He invariably sounds like your high school’s class president. Indeed, Weir may be the whitest vocalist this side of Karen Carpenter, and he makes James Taylor sound like James Brown. And while his vocals work on some tunes they spell, if not the ruination, then the near ruination of opener “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” a scorcher featuring some fine piano by Keith Godchaux, fierce guitar work by Garcia, and funky backing vocals by Donna Jean Godchaux.

Amidst all that, his vocals are out of place by wit of being too damn bright, like a pair of perfect white choppers on a nutria. That said, he manages, I’m not quite sure how, to pull off, if just barely, the similarly fast-paced “One More Saturday Night,” which boasts some hot honky-tonk piano, one crisp guitar solo, and some happening horns. Why, he even lets loose a scream that doesn’t sound anything as stiff or girly as the one I emitted, decades ago, when that hand came out of the earth at the end of Carrie.

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Graded on a Curve:
Band of Horses, Everything All the Time

South Carolina by way of Seattle’s Band of Horses, god bless ‘em, have this uncanny knack for making me want to raise my hands in the air like I actually care. The Buddhists have a saying: “Live every minute like your hair’s on fire.” That’s the way Band of Horses, at least on their 2006 debut Everything All the Time, make me feel. The indie folk rock tunes on their first LP may start out quiet but have the thrilling habit of blowing up in media res into arena-volume anthems of sublime beauty. I prefer them in arena mode myself, but the ones that don’t detonate are lovely too, and you certainly get your share of both on Everything All the Time.

A bit of background. Lead vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Ben Bridwell is a graduate of the Perry Farrell School of Rock Singers. His high, thin telegraph wire of a voice tends to give the band’s every song a subtle tinge of prog rock as well as a tender touch of delicacy, regardless of what rough beast slouches underneath. You will either love his voice or hate it. I like it, but I would never turn my back on it.

Surprisingly, or perhaps not so given how big the band’s sound can get, Bridwell said of Everything All the Time, “I thought before recording that I really wanted an ELO-sounding record, with strings and keyboards and synths, but then, as we got closer to it, we wanted to take a more raw approach.” I should add that there is absolutely nothing raw about Everything All the Time. But good thing they didn’t take the ELO approach, because it has spelled the ruination of many a good young band, and speaking just for myself, the only thing I’ve ever liked about Jeff Lynne and Company is the Randy Newman song parodying them.

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Graded on a Curve:
Lou Reed,
Coney Island Baby

Anybody who doesn’t have a love-hate relationship with Lou Reed, well, I have to wonder about them. He was both a flawed genius and an unreconstituted pretentious asshole/nutjob, and it could be hard to separate his bat shit from his diamonds. But one LP I love unconditionally is 1976’s Coney Island Baby, on which he reveals both a pop side and a vulnerable side, and on which Reed shocked the entire world by singing about how he wanted to play football for the coach. Lou Reed? Football? To paraphrase John Fogerty, “Put me in coach/I’m ready to pay… good money for methamphetamines.”

Coney Island Baby is as close as Reed would ever come to pure pop product, and followed hard on the heels of the disappointing Lou Reed Live and the combination fiasco/fuck you that was Metal Machine Music, on which Lou let feedback do not just the heavy lifting, but all of the lifting period, before cold-bloodedly foisting off the resulting caterwaul on a defenseless public. Lou claimed there were classical references buried in all that hypnotizing squeal, but Reed spent those years as crazy as a hoot owl on one substance or another, and should you ever get the chance I recommend you read the Lester Bangs essay in which he calls Reed on Metal Machine Music, amongst other things.

Don’t get me wrong. Lou at his warmest can still be one mean character. On the otherwise catchy “Charley’s Girl,” which comes with a ready-made melody and fetching female backing vocalists, Lou warns the world to “watch out for Charley’s girl,” because she’s evidently some sort of narc, and in the middle of the song he sings, “I said if I ever see Sharon again/I’m gonna punch her face in.” Which is one catchy rhyme, but given Reed’s history of domestic abuse, was neither funny nor an idle threat.

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Graded on a Curve: Talking Heads,
Fear of Music

Am I the only one who thinks the pre-Remain in Light David Byrne was the funniest rocker this side of Randy Newman? He turned twitchy paranoia into humor, and then did such a good job of channeling his alternately hysterical and wooden persona we were left wondering whether we were listening to an actor or the real David Byrne. He was, in his own way, rock’s equivalent of Andy Kaufman.

Take “Animals” off my favorite Talking Heads LP, 1979’s Fear of Music. It may open with “I Zimbra,” that portent of the Talking Heads future what with its tribal disco, heaps of percussionists, Afro-centric rhythms, and lyrics by Dadaist Hugo Ball (to say nothing of Robert Fripp on guitar!), but on the remainder of the LP Byrne has yet to stop making sense. Crazy sense, perhaps, but sense nonetheless. And on “Animals,” which I consider one of the funniest songs ever, Byrne plays a barking mad fellow with a paranoid grudge against our cohabitants in the animal kingdom. “I’m mad/And that’s a fact/Animals don’t help/Animals think/They’re pretty smart/Shit on the ground/See in the dark.” He then adds, “Trusting them/A big mistake!” followed by “They’re never there when you need them.” And he concludes his diatribe by ensuring us that we’re being snickered at behind our backs by our animal fellows: “I know the animals/Are laughing at us,” he sings, and then adds, “They think they know what’s best/They’re making a fool of us.” I crack up every time I hear the tune.

On “Electric Guitar,” meanwhile, Byrne fears electric guitars, or at least considers them “a crime against the state.” Indeed, a guitar finds itself before a judge and jury; their verdict, “Never listen to electric guitar.” And it’s sound advice, because as he repeats at the end of the tune, which is catchy as all hell by the way, “Someone controls electric guitar.” He never says whom, but if that isn’t paranoia, I don’t know what is. Meanwhile, on the lovely “Air,” Byrne turns his sights on oxygen, and how it “can hurt you too.” He adds, “Some people say not to worry about the air/Some people never had experience with… /Air… Air.” And this when it’s crystal clear to Byrne that walking around in the stuff is nothing short of lethal, as he notes when he sings, “What is happening to my skin/Where is that protection that I needed?” Evidently Byrne did not consider this “protest song against the atmosphere” a joke, although I myself doubt him, and think he was pulling an Andy Kaufman stunt by insisting upon its seriousness.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Feelies,
The Good Earth

Everybody loves The Feelies. And I mean everyone. Show me a person who does not love The Feelies and I will show you an imaginary person, because such a person simply does not exist. I have searched all of my books and everyone in those books loves the Feelies. Captain Ahab loved the Feelies. Even Bartleby the Scrivener, the guy who replied “I’d prefer not to” to every proposition put to him, replied, “I would prefer not, unless you’re talking about the Feelies.” Why even legendarily harsh Village Voice music critic and Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, who once wrote off ALL OF jazz as the “impudent swampflowers of negroid pandemonium,” acknowledged that “the Feelies make me feel good, like I’m rolling into Moscow on a panzer tank with my oh so cute Aryan comrades, prepared to declare total victory.”

Because, well, what’s not to love? Their jingle-jangle melodies and cool grooves are every bit as infectious as Lassa Fever, and their hushed vocals provide the perfect topping for said melodies, and on 1986’s The Good Earth they sound like the perfect successors to the later-period Velvet Underground, and how can you go wrong with that? True, the vocals are almost too self-effacing, and remind me of what Jonathan Richman said about abandoning the electric guitar, namely, he didn’t want to hurt the little babies’ ears. But their vocals are, as I mentioned earlier, perfect for their material, which will make you want to dance while sitting still, or stand stock still while dancing, or drive fast but not too fast, because that would detract from their perfection, your driving too fast would detract from the ideal jingle-jangle that they perfected for the good of us all, this band from Haledon, New Jersey, great place, Haledon, New Jersey.

Their soft touch on most of their songs helps you to forget that they have their hard side too, with lots of pneumatic drumming and ferocious guitars and heck even up-front vocals too, such as on their cover of the Beatles’ “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide (Except Me and My Monkey)” on their debut LP, 1980’s Crazy Rhythms. Or “The Last Roundup” on their 1986 LP, The Good Earth. But mostly they put their perfect strumming to the service of outrageously good melodies, such as on “Let’s Go,” also from The Good Earth. They took the sound of the third Velvet Underground LP and in a super-secret act of musical alchemy ran with it, and the result is a more polite, and friendlier, take on the VU’s “What Goes On,” a tune the Feelies cover on their 1988 LP Only Life.

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Graded on a Curve:
Levon Helm,
Electric Dirt

If the late Richard Manuel was the heart of The Band, then Levon Helm was its soul. The cotton farmer’s son from Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, who decided to become a musician after seeing Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, brought the whole of the American folk and country tradition with him to The Band, and was the titular leader of Levon and the Hawks until a certain Robbie Robertson, who is the villain of this piece, used his extraordinary songwriting skills to take over.

In the aftermath of 1976’s The Last Waltz, which was the band’s final show not so much by agreement as by fiat by Robertson, great things might have been expected from Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, and Robbie Robertson. But it was not to be, and the individual member’s post-Band work sadly doesn’t amount to much. Robertson didn’t release a solo album until 1987, and four more albums thereafter, but they’re overcooked affairs, and sound more like something Bono might have cooked up than Robertson’s Americana with the band. As for the other members, Danko released a couple of so-so LPs, Manuel released one studio LP, while Hudson never released a solo LP. That leaves Helm, who released four solo LPs between 1977 (the first with his RCO All-Stars) and 1982. And that would have been it had Helm not made a big, Grammy-winning return with 2007’s Dirt Farmer, which he followed with another Grammy winner in 2010’s Electric Dirt.

On both LPs Helm returns to his roots; never much of a songwriter, he was always a great interpreter of other peoples’ songs, and on Electric Dirt he shares exactly one co-writing credit, with multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Larry Campbell. As for the other tunes, they range from a Grateful Dead classic to Randy Newman’s great homage to the populist but crooked Louisiana governor, Huey Long, to songs by bluegrass great Carter Stanley and soul and gospel legend Pops Staples.

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Graded on a Curve:
Smog, Supper

I admit it: I haven’t listened to much Bill Callahan, who has spent the bulk of his career recording under the Smog moniker. But I’ve listened to 2003’s Supper about a quarter of a million times, and why, given how much I enjoy it, I haven’t listened to any of his other albums is an imponderable mystery, like what happened to D.B. Cooper, why the dinosaurs and the 8-track went extinct, and what exactly it is about the Police that other people hear but I don’t.

Callahan followed the patented path from lo-fi to high, although in his case the increasing sophistication was due less to shifting aesthetic preference to sheer lack of access to more expensive recording technology in his early years. He has however, stayed faithful to his relativity primitive songwriting approach, which emphasizes simple and repetitive song structures, and often eschews choruses. That, compared with his deadpan vocal delivery, gives his LPs a unique feel, one that is often simultaneously down in the mouth and exhilarating. Or, depending on your tastes, it makes them exercises in monotony, which are likely to send you running to something with more variety, say Prince or just about everybody, really.

“Feather by Feather” is a lovely and haunting slow burner of a country rock tune on which Callahan is joined by Sarabeth Tucek. The organ is pretty, as is the pedal steel guitar, and while I can’t say I know what the song is about, I sure do like it when Callahan sings, “When they make the movie of your life/They’re going to have to ask you to do your own stunts/Cuz nobody nobody nobody nobody/Can pull off the same shit as you/And still come out alright.” I also like the ending, when Callahan and Tucek sing, “And you are a fighter/You are a fighter/You are a fighter” and so on until a synth comes in and they repeat, “The kids got heart.” I’m not enthralled by “Butterflies Drowned in Wine,” which opens with some stop and start until it breaks into an enthused passage, which in its turn is followed by some slow country music. And so it goes, the tune twisting and turning about on itself and going every which way—there’s even a section where Callahan and Tucek sing, “Temporary sister and brotherhood” over and over again—and it’s just too busy for my tastes.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Felice Brothers,
Life in the Dark

I’ve said it before, goddamn it, and I’ll say it again: The Felice Brothers are the best folk and country rock group to come our way since The Band. Strong words, I know; but I’ve seen them live on numerous occasions and listened to their LPs more times than I can count, and I’ve come to the conclusion there’s something in the drinking water of those Catskill Mountains both they and The Band called home that is pure glory.

And I’m happy to report that Life in the Dark is the Felice Brothers at the top of their game, veering from hillbilly tunes to murder ballads to the best nonsense tunes to come our way since Dylan and The Band recorded The Basement Tapes in that famous pink house in West Saugerties, New York. Life in the Dark will break your heart, it will send you reeling, and it will make you smile at the sheer absurdity of life, and an album, no album, can do you any better than that.

The Felice Brothers are Ian Felice on guitar and lead vocals, brother James Felice on accordion, keyboards, and vocals, Greg Farley on fiddle, and Josh Rawson on bass, and they recorded Life in the Dark in a garage on a farm in the lovely Hudson Valley. The results speak for themselves; you’ll come away, I kid you not, from listening to Life in the Dark, with its rich musical textures and Ian Felice’s distinctive voice and always surprisingly lovely lyrics, with a new appreciation for the joys and sadness, to say nothing of the imponderable mystery, of this life.

As familiar with the folk tradition as they are with classic rock, The Felice Brothers carry the history of American music on their backs like a bag of gold coins, and happily empty that bag at our feet. “Aerosol Ball” is a happy-making number, heavy on the fiddle, tambourine, and accordion, and it bounces along while Ian Felice tosses off non sequiturs (“The rain in Maine/Is made of novacaine/In the Florida Keys/It’s made of antifreeze/In Maryland, it’s made of heroin/In Minnesota/It’s made of baking soda”) before getting down to business, namely his love for the “Doll of St. Paul/At the aerosol ball/She’s such as special girl/She’s been all around the world.” But I would be remiss not to quote the song’s most wonderful lines, to wit: “Well the cat ate the rat/And the beast ate the cat/And the boy ate the beast/And the beast made him fat.”

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