Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
Paul and Linda McCartney, Ram

You can grouse all you want about how Paul McCartney graduated from the Beatles only to become one of the world’s biggest purveyors of pure treacle, but that’s being unfair. Sure, I would gladly dunk my head in a pail of skunk piss to avoid hearing “Let ‘Em In” and “Silly Love Songs,” and that goes double for “Ebony and Ivory” and “Listen to What the Man Said.” You’re free to disagree, but I am of the belief that all four of the aforementioned songs are enough to disprove widely held assumptions about the continuing progress of the human species.

But. But! During the course of his long post-Beatles career the most lachrymose member of the Fab Four has bequeathed us some of the catchiest songs—I’m talking about “Band on the Run,” “Jet,” “Smile Away,” “Rock Show,” “Live and Let Die,” “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” etc.—you’ll ever hear. All of them may be lightweights, but they can knock out just about anything in their class.

Bottom line? I am of the opinion that Sir Paul’ genius resides in his amazing ability to overcome his natural predilection towards producing pure pap for soft rock people. There’s no denying that the old boy has demonstrated an uncanny capacity for recording horseshit, but he’s simply too talented to let his worst instincts completely overwhelm his facility at turning out irresistible melodies. And it could be his love for pot, but he also has a strange but likeable tendency towards the downright surreal.

Take Ram, his 1971 collaboration with wife Linda. True, Ram may not be representative of McCartney’s overall output, as it doesn’t include a single insufferable song, although “Long Haired Lady” comes flirtatiously close. On the other hand, “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey” is a brilliant pastiche and predecessor to the landmark “Band on the Run,” and while I laugh at it I also love it more than I did my dear old grandma, the insufferable prick. Just listen to it! The falling rain! The sound of thunder! That wonderful megaphone! That posh English accent! The inimitable Marvin Stamm’s magic flugelhorn! The talk of pies! And I could go on! But you get the idea.

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Graded on a Curve:
Songs: Ohia,
Magnolia Electric Co.

“When you are up to your neck in shit,” wrote Samuel Beckett, “all you can do is sing.” This is as good a starting point as any to discuss the sad fate of Songs: Ohia’s Jason Molina, who sang and sang but ultimately drowned, not in shit but in alcohol, the complications of which took him away from us at the indecent age of 39. This is no easy feat for any drinker, no matter how hard he hits the sauce. Being a drunk myself, I know. And being a drunk, I feel for the guy. He had genius, but he also had a disease, and in the end the disease won.

That said, Molina left behind a rich legacy of wonderful songs, and we all owe him a debt of gratitude. I myself am partial to 2003’s The Magnolia Electric Co., Songs: Ohia’s seventh and final regular album. It’s a haunting and desolately lovely LP, and imbued with a lonely aura of fatality that the albums’ other voices (Scout Niblett, Lawrence Peters) fail to dissipate.

Molina’s work has been compared to that of Palace/Will Oldham, but I also hear distinctive echoes of Smog’s Bill Callahan and Neil Young. But his vocals and lyrics are darker, more beautifully poetic, more doom laden. Neil Young never came close, except on Tonight’s the Night. I can’t listen to Molina without thinking of Rick Danko of the Band singing, “I’ve got fire water right on my breath/And the doctor warned me I might catch a death/Said, “You can make it in your disguise/Just never show the fear that’s in your eyes.”

The Neil Young-esque opening track “Farewell Transmission” delivers on its title—Molina serves up haunting image on top of haunting image, sings, “The real truth about it is there ain’t no end to the desert I’ll cross/I’ve really known that all along.” Sings, “Mama here comes moonlight with the dead moon in its jaws/Must be the big star about to fall.” And then closes the song by repeating variations on, “Long dark blues/A farewell transmission/Listen!” And “Farewell Transmission” is followed by the equally dark “I’ve Been Riding With the Ghost,” which features some appropriately ghostly backing vocals and kicks into gear like that long black Cadillac bearing the ghost of Hank Williams to the gig he would never play in Canton, Ohio on New Year’s Day 1953.

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Graded on a Curve: Orleans,
Waking and Dreaming

Before we proceed to discussing the merits or lack thereof of Orleans’ 1976 LP Waking and Dreaming, we must first address the naked guys in the room. I’m talking, of course, about the album’s cover. What we have here are five men, four nipples, and two awful chest pelts. No wonder Waking and Dreaming has been proclaimed by various sources to be one of the “19 Most Hilariously Failed Attempts at Sexy Album Covers,” one of the “10 Gayest (the site’s homophobia, not mine) Album Covers of All Time,” and one of the “50 Worst Album Covers.”

Orleans was one of the many more or less interchangeable soft rock bands that made the mid to late 1970’s so positively Lovecraftian. I suspect someone made a mistake, because Waking and Dreaming should have been entitled Waking and Screaming. A kind of American version of Australia’s Little River Band, Orleans made John Denver sound like a punk. They were smooth, smooth, smooth, which is just another way of saying soporific. “Waking” my ass; Waking and Dreaming is an aural sleeping pill, and I had to drink about 10 cups of coffee just to make it through the damn thing. Asked for a quick summation of the LP’s songs, several words come to mind–namely bland, blander, and blandest.

That said, Orleans has its moments. “Stoned” and “Two-Faced World” off their eponymous 1973 debut aren’t half bad, and the title track off 1975’s Let There Be Music almost rocks, albeit in an anonymous, slightly lame, Doobie Brothers kind of way. Unfortunately none of these mildly diverting moments occur on Waking and Dreaming, whose sole merit is that it at least doesn’t have the MOR hit “Dance With Me” on it. Instead it includes their slightly more palatable MOR hit “Still the One.” I say slightly more palatable because at least it has a pulse, which “Dance With Me” does not. And I actually enjoy the final 8 seconds or so of “Still the One,” which is something I suppose.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Stooges,
Fun House

I suppose somebody had to do it. I suppose somebody had to go and make an album that isn’t an album, but a great sucking sound that slowly drags you through the filthy, rat-infested back alleys of rock’n’roll straight to the dark and dirty portal to Hell that is “L.A. Blues.” “The derangement of all the senses” was what the 19th Century French poet Arthur Rimbaud was seeking, and all I can say is it’s a pity he never got the chance to hear The Stooges’ “L.A. Blues,” or the album it closes, 1970’s Fun House.

Because Iggy Pop and the Stooges’ best album isn’t just a slow descent into atonal skronk, it’s a road map to Hades. From its opening cut to its close it takes you down, down, down, into an abyss from which there’s no return. “Take it down!” howls Iggy, and he’s talking about everything, the whole damn world; the shrieks that follow demonstrate that once you’ve entered the fun house, everything collapses; the Stooges take you from the street into a maelstrom of sax-based (long live the late Steve MacKay) madness. Iggy’s words are unintelligible; he screeches and howls, and it’s too late to turn back now.

“L.A. Blues” isn’t a song; it’s a free jazz explosion, with enough electrical feedback to power the city it was named after. Jim Morrison loved the city of motel money murder madness, but not even “L.A. Woman” can compete with “L.A. Blues”; somebody once compared Hollywood to a tour of a sewer on a glass-bottomed boat, and on Fun House Iggy (aka James Osterberg) and his compadres (brothers Ron and Scott Asheton on guitar and drums, respectively, and Dave Alexander on bass) are the guys doing the rowing. This is it, right here and now, the sound of the apocalypse scorching you like a blowtorch through your headphones.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Rolling Stones,
Blue & Lonesome

Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle. Had somebody told me The Rolling Stones, who haven’t done jack shit for me since the late seventies, or the mid-seventies for that matter, actually had a decent album in them at this late date, I’ve had written the poor soul off as a candidate for the laughing academy. I say “decent” because unlike most of the critics gushing over 2016’s Don Was-produced Blue & Lonesome, I’m not much of a fan of the blues, and this album of blues covers doesn’t make me love the blues any more than I already don’t.

And yet. On Blue & Lonesome the Stones manage to sound like they’re not only in it for the money, as if they’re not as rich as Marcus Licinius Crassus already. It’s the pursuit of filthy lucre that has kept them upright all these years, but on Blue & Lonesome the further accumulation of wealth doesn’t sound like their raison d’être. Which is, to me at least, a feat in itself. Why, the money-sucking vampires in a band well past its sell-by date almost sound impassioned, alert, still twitching, and very much alive.

So yeah, Blue & Lonesome is a miracle of sorts. Mick Jagger’s harmonica playing alone is worth the price of the damn record. And he sings like he did before he joined the undead, or the upper classes for that matter. As if he means it. And miracle of miracles, guest Eric Clapton (who plays slide guitar on “Everybody Knows About My Good Thing” and lead guitar on “I Can’t Quit You Baby”) sounds alive as well, on fire even. Will miracles never cease?

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Graded on a Curve: Cornershop,
Woman’s Gotta Have It

In the beginning, God created the drone. And She said, “The drone is Good.” She was talking about the Velvet Underground of course, before John Cale took his viola and skedaddled, but unbeknownst to God, xenophobe that She is, there was another drone out there, a very cool South Asian drone native to India and Pakistan.

How cool are our South Asian brothers and sisters? So cool that they’ve based their classical, folk, AND pop music on the drone. Take your Hindustani Sangeet and Carnatic Sangeet, for instance. Both feature performers kicking out the drone on the tambura, with its four strings tuned to the tonic, and that’s hardly scratching the surface.

Which brings us to Cornershop and its genius of a front man, Punjabi Londoner Tjinder Singh, about whom the critic Robert Christgau wrote, “There are only so many places you can take the Velvet Underground at this late date… but [Singh] has found one.” What Singh did, obviously, was take that wonderful Indian drone and combine it with good old rock’n’roll to create what one critic dubbed “Hindi-pop,” or as I prefer to think of it, that nonexistent but wonderful place on the world map where Lou Reed and the Ganges converge.

On Cornershop’s 1995 sophomore release Woman’s Gotta Have It, Singh and company (Cornershop features three guitarists and another guy on the sitar, and it tells) mingle Indian-flavored drone rockers with such great Indian-free lo-fi indie numbers such as “Call All Destroyer” and “Hong Kong Book of Kung Fu,” which will make you forget all about the great Carl Douglas. And then there’s the irresistible “Wog” (a derogatory term for a dark-skinned South Asian), in which Singh repeats, “This western oriental/going full circle” to the sound of hand claps and some very cool backing vocals by Parsley and Sasha Andres. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the slow and way indie groove that constitutes “Roof Rack.” Love the sound of the meaty lead guitar on this one!

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Graded on a Curve: Mondo Cozmo, “Shine”

We all have songs that take us to a higher place, that are less tunes than bona fide spiritual experiences. My short list includes “Bitter Sweet Symphony” by the Verve, “I’m in You” by the Pooh Sticks, “Sweet Thing” by Van Morrison, “Brazilia” by John Coltrane, and last but by no means least, “All the Young Dudes” by Mott the Hoople. I may be an agnostic, but it’s easy to imagine that it’s God Himself speaking to us through these songs, or in the case of “Brasilia,” Coltrane’s probing, seeking saxophone.

I’m happy to announce I’ve discovered a new treasure, one that will make me feel a bit better about being a human being down all my days. It’s “Shine” by Mondo Cozmo, the nom de rock of Joshua Ostrander, who spent time in alt-rock bands Laguardia and Eastern Conference Champions before going the one-man band route. Mondo Cozmo has only dropped a couple of singles thus far, but if 2016’s “Shine” (which gets my vote for best song of the year) is any indication of Ostrander’s skill set, the guy is going to go very far indeed. Because “Shine” will have you put your hands in the air in pure exaltation, and perhaps even skip through Central Park while you’re at it, like Seinfeld’s George Costanza after getting his high-paying gig as a hand model.

Big. The sound is big. And it gets bigger, and bigger, as in choir big, as Mondo Cozmo sings the larger-than-life chorus, “Let ‘em get high/Let ‘em get stoned/Everything will be alright/If you let it go.” Unlike all my other faves, this one is a direct message to God; Ostrander asks Jesus to stick with him through “the coming storm” and to “shine a light” down on him, before going into that fabulous chorus. The first go-round is muted, just Ostrander’s vocals backed by an acoustic guitar, but on the second verse the whole shebang kicks in, and it’s like walking into a perfect storm of total exhilaration. One that will transport you to a better place, a world that doesn’t hurt, at least for the length of the song.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Fugs,
Live from the 60s

I love counterculture poet and icon Ed Sanders for the same reason so many other people like Ed–he wrote a poem about fucking a tree. It starts “into the oily crotch/place dick.” And just to prove he was not some kind of tree pervert, he wrote a poem about fucking a sheep too. This is just one of many possible reasons his first published poem was written in jail.

Another great reason to love Ed Sanders, America’s true heir to the mantle of Allen Ginsberg, was he co-founded the very subversive and sarcastic freak folk band The Fugs with fellow poet Tuli Kupferberg. Just as there are many reasons to love Sanders, there are many reasons to love the Fugs. For example, they had a great sense of humor. It’s hard to beat their description of being totally defeated in “My Baby Done Left Me.” To wit, “I feel like homemade shit.”

They were a highly literate bunch, the Fugs. When they weren’t writing songs called “Boobs a Lot,” they were penning a hilarious ode to the obscure 19th Century English poet Algernon Charles Swinburne—about whom I once wrote a grad school paper, figuring my prof would be too lazy and uninformed to do the research necessary to realize I was full of shit—called “The Swinburne Stomp,” which opens with the wonderful words, “In the key of metaphysical distress.” Finally, the Fugs were true gonzo primitivists, the most incompetent and lo-fi outfit this side of New York City contemporaries The Godz. If you like your weirdness cooked raw, and by that I mean sushi raw, the Fugs are the band for you.

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Graded on a Curve:
Belle and Sebastian,
If you’re feeling sinister

So just the other day I was at my girlfriend’s place and I told her I’d been listening to Belle and Sebastian. And she said in amazement, “You? You?? But they’re so… emo!” To which I replied, my voice reaching that high and buzzard-like Geddy Lee pitch that I can only attain when genuinely flubbergumbled, “Emo my ass! I hate those emo fuckers! Those irony-deficient shitbags! They’re too busy setting their wretchedly sensitive and self-absorbed high school diary poems to music to realize life is a hilarious cosmic joke at their expense! Belle and Sebastian are twee, damn it, and have a sense of humor! Just listen to “This Is Just a Modern Rock Song”! I mean, gak!… Grrr!”

And after that I descended into uttering outraged gibberish while my poor girlfriend cowered at the far end of the sofa, fishing around for her son’s bb gun, which she occasionally uses to put a sudden stop to my insane ranting. There is nothing like a bb to the solar plexus to shut you up, and fast.

In hindsight, I got all heated up because while the music of Belle and Sebastian is precious beyond words, and unremittingly lovely to boot, front man and pop genius Stuart Murdoch undercuts all that divine loveliness with smart and very sexually ambiguous lyrics in which boys who love boys settle for girls (they’re not as much trouble!) and girls who love girls settle for boys (they’re not as much trouble!).

Why, the unbearably sublime “Stars of Track and Field” from 1996’s If you’re feeling sinister alone is a hilarious study of the polymorphous perverse sexual mores of our oh so very sophisticated young people, what with the girl in question playing track and field for only one reason: to wear “terry underwear/And feel the city air/Run past your body.” And Murdoch finishes his “requiem” for said star of track and field by singing, “But when she’s on her back/She had the knowledge/To get her into college.”

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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.

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  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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