Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
UFO, Lights Out

How deep an impression did the British hard rock band UFO make on my teenage years? Well, I got this baby on 8-track for Christmas one year and I can’t remember a damn thing about it. I suspect I listened to it once, went “Bleh,” and tossed into the discard pile.

Hell, I have no idea what possessed me to ask for it in the first place. Probably a review in Creem magazine. Those fuckers were always leading me down the primrose path.

UFO’s 1977 Lights Out was certainly an odd choice for something to ask for, seeing as how I never much dug hard rock or metal and didn’t even like Led Zeppelin. The snooty teenage me looked down on metal, thought it was dumb, but my good taste has gone to shit over the years and good thing, seeing as how good taste (and this has been scientifically proven!) takes all the fun out of life. Shit, I didn’t even like Foghat, and what kinda way is that for a person to live?

So a coupla days back I decided to give Lights Out another listen and guess what? I love it! It’s the greatest heavy metal album ever! Okay, so it’s not as good as Kix’s debut LP, or Van Halen’s 1984 for that matter, but it packs a big dumb sonic punch that lights up my pleasure receptors every time I put it on.

At times Lights Out rocks harder than those bozos in Foreigner ever would (compare “Too Hot to Handle” to “Hot-Blooded,” I dare ya!), at others it anticipates Def Leppard’s glossy pop-metal sheen. Like Bad Company but with a soggy soft side (see the great “Love to Love” and their cover of Love’s “Alone Again Or”!), or AC/DC only quicker on the trigger, Phil Mogg (vocals), Michael “Displaced German” Schenker (lead guitar) and Company produced some of the most shamefully likable hard rock this side of Elton John, who I could swear plays piano (it’s credited to Mogg) on the very Captain Fantastic “Just Another Suicide.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Witch,
Introduction

“We’re a Zambian Band!”

Tired of motoriking around the living room to your Krautrock records? Just plain done with dancing your legs down to your knees to your Northern Soul, Batucada, and Space Disco LPs? Sick unto death of the records in your Eastern Bloc Jazz-Fusion, Dungeon Synth, Nederpop, Nangma, Pirate Metal, Pornogrind, and Spouge collections?

Well, my depraved vinyl junkie friend, why not give Zamrock a shot?

The 1970s Zambian rock scene produced some really great Afro-psychedelic bands, the most famous of which was Witch (stands for We Intend to Cause Havoc!). Fronted by the charismatic Emanuel “Jagari” Chanda (that “Jagari is an Africanization of “Jagger”!), Witch sang in English and were famed for their frenetic live shows, which could last more than six hours and frequently included some really dope covers, including a retooled version of Grand Funk’s “We’re an American Band” the band proudly retitled “We’re a Zambian Band.”

Seriously, all you crate diggers: how fucking Sub-Saharan cool is that?

I’m not going to go into any great detail about the socio-economic conditions that made Zamrock such a potent force in the seventies; suffice it to say the movement arose and thrived in the sunny wake of Zambian national liberation and economic boom times only to slowly founder amidst a host of vexing geopolitical problems (wars on the nation’s borders, an uprising in country) and the near collapse of the country’s copper-based economy.

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Graded on a Curve:
Queen,
Sheer Heart Attack

It’s a shame, when you think about it. All the great albums I never heard growing up because (1) I could rarely afford the cost of an LP, and (2) there was no great or even half-decent FM radio station within listening range of the one half-horse town (the other half of the horse was owned by nearby Harney, and they got the front end) I called home.

Take Queen’s Sheer Heart Attack. Never heard it. Never heard of Queen period until “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which I should have liked but didn’t because I thought it was too camp. Too camp! This from a guy who spent the better part of his adolescence idolizing Elton John. But that’s the way I roll. I didn’t like the pitch of Freddie Mercury’s voice, or the band’s lush and ubiquitous vocal harmonies, and as for the songs, they were too structurally baroque for my primitivist tastes. In hindsight, I was a little punk in the making. My attitude was keep it simple, which was why I never liked progressive rock, period, until I started to get high and listened to my fair share of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis.

And if I didn’t like Queen much to begin with, I really disliked them after they put out those bookend hits, “We Are the Champions” and “We Will Rock You.” To me they sounded like pseudo-fascistic declarations of supremacy, and I thought then and still think now their Übermensch shtick would have gone over like gangbusters at the Nuremburg Rallies. The line “no time for losers” offends me as much as any line in rock history, which is why I never listened to 1974’s Sheer Heart Attack even after I knew it existed. I thought of Queen as a bunch of snotty high-pitched twats whose songs were too complicated for their own good, and wrote them off as bad rubbish.

But there is a time and a place for everything, and now is the time to give Queen their chance at rocking my world. And guess what, they have. Sheer Heart Attack isn’t the perfect LP, but it includes a slew of cool songs I like, even if some of their affectations continue to irk me. Bottom line: Any band with a guitarist as good as Brian May, and that can come up with a line as good as “Give me a good guitar/And you can say my hair’s a disgrace” is okay with me.

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Graded on a Curve: Pentagram,
First Daze Here: The Vintage Collection

I was never one of the Black-Sabbath-loving troublemakers who smoked Camel unfiltereds in the parking lot outside metal shop at my old Alma Mater–fact is I was a faceless geek who wore glasses and preferred Elton John and to be honest, those guys scared me.

But now I kinda feel sorry for that motley crew of greasers and long hairs, and this despite the fact that they posed an existential threat to my personal safety in high school (walking down the hall between classes was like walking point in Vietnam!). Why? Because they never got a chance to hear doom metal pioneers Pentagram but were instead condemned to play their Sabbath and Deep Purple and Kiss 8-tracks over and over until the 8-track players in their bitchin’ Camaros ATE ‘em.

And all because Pentagram vocalist Bobby Liebling was such a colossal drug abuser and all-around egomaniac fuck-up he blew every chance the band ever got to get out of Old Virginny and become the heavy metal gods they wanted (and perhaps even deserved) to be.

Indeed, so feckless and self-sabotaging was Liebling that Pentagram didn’t put out a bona fide debut album until 1985–a good DECADE OR MORE after they produced the demos and live rehearsal tapes collected on the 2001 compilation First Daze Here: The Vintage Collection. And by that time the guys who played on this one were (with the exception of Liebling, natch) long gone.

Which was far too late for my old high school tormenters who by that point in time had probably given up listening to metal years ago (or maybe not–I hope not!) in favor of who knows what… Commercial country? The NRA-era Nuge? Madonna?

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Graded on a Curve: Melville A.D.,
11 Electric Poems
for E.M. Cioran

When it comes down to my philosophy of life, everything I believe I stole directly from the Romanian philosopher E.M. Cioran. A master of detachment and nattering nabob of negativity who wrote in a pithy and crystalline French, you can distil his entire work to one of his marvelous aphorisms, to wit: “No one has been so convinced as I of the futility of everything; and no one has taken so tragically so many things.” Just how much did he hate life and his fellow man? Let’s see: “Sometimes I wish I were a cannibal—less for the pleasure of eating someone than for the pleasure of vomiting him.”

I’ve long wanted to write a concept album to him, but it seems Melville A.D, who entitled a 2015 LP 11 Electric Poems for E.M. Cioran, has beaten me to the punch. I’m not typically much of a fan of abstract electronic music, but Melville A.D—one of the musical projects of Frenchman and long-time New Yorker Didier Cremieux—strikes exactly the right bleak but still funky note on his songs, which are entitled “Emc 01,” “Emc 02,” etc. Like Cioran’s dark aphorisms the songs on the LP strike an unflinching and elegiac note, one appropriate to the man who once wrote, “To live is to lose ground.”

Cremieux’s other musical projects include Mr. Untel, collaboration with fellow Frenchman Gerard Iangelia. Cremieux described Mr. Untel’s electronic music it to me as “cosmic music for cocktails in the bayou.” According to Cremieux, another project, Firefly Choir, is “a pure electronic project characterized by longer, slower pieces,” featuring “processed organic sounds and as little structure as possible.” Cremieux told me he is inspired by the written word: “I often find myself with many sound ideas after reading words and always try to create a soundscape or a sound illustration to such works.”

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Graded on a Curve:
The Sensational
Alex Harvey Band,
Next

What the fuck is this? Glam hangers-on The Sensational Alex Harvey Band were a uniquely Scottish phenomenon, trainspotting and pronouncing the word “garage” the way Elton John does in his song “Levon.” Which is just another way of saying that hardly anybody in the U.S. of A. outside of Cleveland ever laid ears on ‘em, much less considered ‘em sensational.

And small wonder, because the Sensational Alex Harvey Band were simply too esoteric gonzo in the grand tradition of unapologetic English eccentrics for mass consumption. Pub rock heroes with progressive rock tendencies who weren’t afraid to shamelessly camp it up for the Glitter kids, SAHB liked to keep the punters guessing, as 1973’s Next aptly demonstrates.

On the band’s sophomore LP you get some Mott rock, a faux-snakeskin swamp blues, an esoteric hoodoo jive number called “Vambo Marble Eye,” some straight-up Glam Rock, and a couple of numbers so completely over the top flamboyant they make David Bowie and Gary Glitter look like wallflowers. Fact is I’ve never heard anything like ‘em outside the canons of Jobriath, Meatloaf, and Morrissey.

All of which to say is that Alex Harvey and Company were some twisted people, as their madcap live shows proved. Superhero costumes, props, you name it–these anything goes eclectitions (a word I just made up!) put every bit as much outré energy into their stage act as Alice Cooper or Jethro Tull, and their fanatical UK cult following adored them for it.

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Graded on a Curve:
Bad Religion,
Into the Unknown

Talk about your unmitigated disasters: in 1983 the L.A. hardcore band Bad Religion nearly threw its career chances out the window when it inexplicably decided to follow up its very well received debut LP Could Hell Be Any Worse? with, get this, a synthesizer-heavy PROGRESSIVE ROCK ALBUM!

I mean, seriously, what the fuck were they thinking? Trying to peddle prog to the kids on the faster-harder hardcore scene circa 1983 was an even bigger dumbell move than coming out in support of Ronald Reagan and wouldn’t have made sense even as a kind of ultimate punk rock practical joke (which it wasn’t), and the blowback was (as was certain to be expected) both brutal and swift.

Into the Unknown (copies of which the band had optimistically produced in large numbers) tanked, leading guitarist Brett Gurewitz to later joke that 10,000 copies went out and 11,000 copies came back. And tellingly, only 12 people turned out to see Bad Religion when they premiered the material live, which so demoralized the band that not only did they lose the synthesizers (probably tossed ‘em in a dumpster behind the club) they actually broke up for a while. A “terrible misstep” is how Gurewitz characterized the LP, and that’s a bit of an understatement.

But here’s the thing. Into the Unknown is a fantastic LP and to my way of thinking the most interesting thing Bad Religion–a melodic hardcore band with no discernible sense of humor that has produced a whole slew of LPs that are more than competent but have never added anything absolutely essential to the hardcore conversation–will ever produce.

I’m no fan of progressive rock, but I love Into the Unknown because its anthemic teen uplift taps into (and is a logical extension of) the (far more likable because dumber) kiddy-prog that was being churned out by the likes of Styx, Kansas, and Boston less than a decade earlier. And if there’s one thing I support, it’s a Big Kiddy-Prog Revival.

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Graded on a Curve:
Jethro Tull,
Thick as a Brick

Talk about your fitting gifts: when I was 14 my parents gave this baby to a teen delinquent relative of mine for Christmas, and he really was as thick as a brick. His budding criminal career came to an inglorious end when he saw a car sitting by the side of the road and decided to rifle through its trunk. But just as he was doing so he saw a state cop car come over the hill so he jumped in the car’s trunk and pulled the deck lid down behind him and it locked!

And it was hot as hell in there and he had no way out and he could hear the crunch of the state trooper’s jackboots on loose gravel approaching, followed by the words: “You comfortable in there, dumbass?”

Like I say: Thick as a brick.

It’s easy to forget that way back in 1972 Jethro Tull practically ruled the World–Aqualung was a smash hit and their concerts were carefully choreographed sold-out-in-a-minute EVENTS and plenty of good little hippies were hoping to discover Thick as a Brick beneath their Christmas tree. But imagine their disappointment when they put it on their record player because what they probably hadn’t anticipated was the fucker only had ONE SONG on it! Which meant if you wanted to hear the whole thing nonstop you basically had to own two turntables!

Even by superelongated prog rock standards a one-song LP was a stretch, and a bummer if like every freak in the U.S. of A. you’d grokked on 1971’s Aqualung and were hoping for some groovy hard rockers of palatable length like Cross-Eyed Mary” and “Locomotive Breath.” Robert Christgau of The Village Voice may have dismissed Thick as a Brick as “the usual shit” but he couldn’t have been more wrong; it was a monster any the world had ever beheld–44 continuous minutes of murk you could sink into and drown!

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Graded on a Curve:
Flamin’ Groovies,
Teenage Head

I’m proud to call myself a blues impurist, by which I mean I’d sooner listen to a bunch of know-nothing punks fold, spindle and mutilate the masterworks of such hallowed figures as Robert Johnson, Leadbelly, and John Lee Hooker than hunker down and listen to the originals, which I suppose makes me a bad person but hey–my mom probably told you that already.

And when it comes to raunching up the blooze garage rock style, you’ll have a hard time beating the early Flamin’ Groovies, who before they went all retro-British Invasion power pop in great songs like “Shake Some Action” (best Iggy and the Stooges song title ever!) turned out a couple of LPs of such inauthentic authenticity you can actually smell the motor oil pooling on the garage floor.

My fave is 1971’s Teenage Head, and you can tell how great it is just by looking at the cover–the Groovies were San Fran boys but you can forget about all of that peace and love bullshit; they look like they’re ready to play your party and steal your beer and talk your girlfriend into going home with ‘em even though home is reform school! Although for all I know they were real sweethearts and if their song “Kicks” is any indication were more likely to give your girlfriend a lecture on the perils of drug abuse than to hand her a Mandrax.

Anyway, on Teenage Head they play some blues numbers featuring mucho slide guitar one of which (“32-20”) was written by Robert Johnson and chug-a-lugs along just fine, toss in a real live be-bop-a-lula rockabilly number called “Evil-Hearted Ada” on which the singer does his best bouncing baby Elvis impersonation, kick out the jams big time on a raving cover of Randy Newman’s “Have You Seen My Baby?”, and toss off another drop-kick rockabilly cop with the hilarious title of “Doctor Boogie” on which the singer says you you gotta mow the lawn, baby, if you wanna be with me. Which might be a sexual metaphor but also might be, you know, just part of the job description. The lawnmower’s out back!

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Graded on a Curve:
Mick Ronson,
Slaughter on 10th Avenue

Like many rock genius types David Bowie had a way of cooly disposing of people like used tissues, but he reserved his shabbiest treatment for guitarist Mick Ronson, who during his tenure with the Spiders from Mars came as close as anyone ever would to sharing equal footing on stage with Ziggy Stardust himself.

They were like Mick and Keith, and frankly poor Ronno, who by all accounts was one of the nicest guys to ever pick up an electric guitar or any other instrument for that mater, never got over Bowie’s peremptory and very cold-blooded decision to sweep him (and his fellow Spiders) into the dustbin of history.

One of Bowie’s (and Mainman bad guy/manager Tony Defries’) “cosmetic” reasons for breaking up the Spiders from Mars was (ostensibly) to give Ronson the opportunity to make his mark as a solo artist, but just about anything I’ve ever read on the subject makes clear Ronson was decidedly uncomfortable as a front man and was anything but enthused about the idea. He was a behind the scenes guy, great at arranging songs and a natural second fiddle on stage what with his incredible guitar playing, but singularly uninterested in being in the limelight.

Throw in the fact that he didn’t have the most distinctive voice and wasn’t a prolix songwriter, and you have several good reasons why his 1974 solo debut Slaughter on 10th Avenue, while chock-a-block with impressive moments and some exemplary playing, underwhelms.

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Graded on a Curve:
Mott the Hoople,
The Hoople

If news of the first U.S. Mott the Hoople tour in 45 years doesn’t have you digging your knee-high platform glitter boots out of the closet, well, I guess you’re just not a hopeless old glam geezer like me. Mott the Hoople ‘74 will feature core members (Ian Hunter, Ariel Bender, and Morgan Fisher) of the Mott that toured America way back in 1974, and will give their legions of lucky faithful the opportunity to swoon to all of their old favorites.

The bad news? Mott’s eight-city tour will begin in lovely Milwaukee on April 1 and end in New York City on April 10, so your opportunities to see one of England’s premiere bands of the early seventies live and in person are limited. But if you love Mott the Hoople–and you really should love Mott the Hoople–you’ll do what it takes to catch one of these shows because let’s face it, boys and girls, Mott the Hoople is THE NAZZ.

As everybody who was alive in the early seventies knows, Mott the Hoople were a hard rock band distinguishable from the pachydermal herd mainly by Ian Hunter’s lyrical (and hyper-self-aware) flights of fancy and Dylan meets pub rock vocalizations who were at the point of breaking up because nobody was buying their records when David Bowie more or less brought them back from the dead by handing them “All the Young Dudes,” which the Hoops turned into one of the most glorious anthems to teen solidarity in the face of parental sneers and fears of growing old you ever will hear. Turn twenty-five? Never! I’d sooner kill myself!

After that they cut a pair of simply extraordinary LPs in the form of 1972’s All the Young Dudes and 1973’s Mott, both of ‘em packed with songs so great you’d break your granny’s arm if she dared besmirch ‘em. You get everything from lethal stabs in the eye like “Sucker” and “One of the Boys” to big rock myth deconstructions like “Hymn for the Dudes” and “All the Way from Memphis” and “Ballad of Mott the Hoople (26th March 1972, Zurich)”, on the latter of which lets you know he knows a rock star is a rather shabby thing to be. Oh, and he also has a sensitive side; who else would have dared to produce a song (and it’s pure dead brilliant) called “I Wish I Was Your Mother”?

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Graded on a Curve:
Robin Trower,
Robin Trower Live

Always with the Hendrix comparisons!

Here all Robin Trower wanted to do after he skipped the light fandango out of Procol Harum in 1971 was play some titanic blooze, but every which way he turned people were calling him a clone of rock’s greatest dead guitarist and how do you think that made the poor guy feel?

Crappy probably.

Here’s The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau, circa 1975: “Is [Trower] experienced? He’s a retread, and the best thing I can say for him is that he makes me remember the verve, humor, and fluidity of the original.”

Ouch!

Well I happen to love the music Trower’s power trio was putting out in the mid-seventies and I don’t give a flying fuck whether people dismiss him as a Hendrix wannabe.

Are there similarities? Sure. But Trower’s doom-laden, Stonehenge-heavy guitar stylings are quite easy to differentiate from Hendrix’s manic-impressive chord splooge, and speaking of Stonehenge, Trower’s vocalist cum bassist James Dewar (formerly of Stone the Crows and a proud member of the Paul Rodgers’ school of blue-eyed soul men) never fails to come off like some kind of death-stalked Druid dude bemoaning the fact that he’s lost in the night and fog and can hear the wolves a’circling.

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Graded on a Curve: Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Works, Volume 1

It’s impossible to interpret that Volume 1 as anything other than a threat. And it was. Shortly after the release of Works, Volume 1, the United Nations received a letter from the law firm of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, threatening to release a Works, Volume 2 unless the band received 100 million dollars in small, unmarked bills. Despite the risk of a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented proportions, the U.N. refused to bend.

Let’s start over.

Way back in 1977, rock’s premiere triumvirate of colossal dildos took their elephantine self-regard to pompous new heights by releasing this prog-rock twofer on which, God save us all, each dildo got his own side. Talk about your hubris. Not even the bloated egos in Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young ever dared to go so far.

You get a Keith Emerson side (he wrote a real live concerto!), a Greg Lake side (mushy acoustic balladry of the squishy candlelit sort), a Carl Palmer side (a so-so hodgepodge but better than the other guys’ sides), and finally a “group” side (on which the trio molests Aaron Copeland and performs theme music for a Deaf Olympics.)

Emerson’s side is the worst by leagues; in fact, I can say without hesitation that it’s the worst side of music in the history of modern music. His three-movement “Piano Concerto No. 1” (another threat!) is a case study in self-puffery and a complete wash; Lord knows your average ELP fan is a masochist prepared to eat any old kind of shit so long as it allows him to feel superior to the kinds of people who are too dumb to know that rock can only be improved by dressing it up in classical finery, but on this one Emerson leaves the rock out of the equation altogether. What you get instead are 18 interminable minutes of second-rate classical wankery, and what I want to know is who’d they hire to clean the bullshit off the piano bench afterwards?

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Graded on a Curve:
Germs, (GI)

We remember The Germs’ Lorna Doom who passed away on Wednesday, January 17 with a look back from our archives. Ed.

Poor Darby Crash. First the Germs charismatic and drug-abusing lead singer returned from England a converted Adam Ant fan (very bad form, very bad form indeed), then he had the amazingly bad luck to die in a suicide pact the day before the murder of John Lennon, thus ensuring his death would receive virtually no recognition in the press.

Fortunately neither his Antdom nor his ill-timed deliberate death by heroin overdose have sullied his posterity, and his pre-planned live-fast-die-young career continues to contribute to what practically amounts to a cult. And I get it. The guy was loony tunes, but he also had charisma. Germs drummer Don Bolles recalls, “With a little more luck and concentrated effort, Darby could have fulfilled his plan to be the new Jesus/Bowie/Manson/Hitler/L Ron Hubbard… he was a natural messiah type, whose heroic consumption of LSD helped make him the most psychedelic prankster I have ever known.”

Fortunately he started a punk band instead, and not just any punk band. As Germs guitarist Pat Smear recollects, “Whatever we were going to be, we were going to be the most. If we’re gonna be punk, then we are gonna out-punk the Sex Pistols! If we are gonna be the worst band ever, then we are gonna be the fucking worst band ever!” As the lead singer for what I like to think was one of the worst bands in history, those are inspiring words indeed.

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Graded on a Curve:
Todd Rundgren,
Something/Anything?

The words “studio genius” get flung about willy-nilly, but Todd Rundgren, the guy who gave us “Hello, It’s Me,” is the real thing. Oh, I know, his prog explorations with Utopia are largely unlistenable, but I would ask you to look at Exhibit A, the 1972 double LP Something/Anything?, as proof of his, er, geniusitude. It was one of the greatest gifts (along with Mott the Hoople’s All the Young Dudes and Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells a Story) my older brother bequeathed to me when he took off to see the country in the mid-seventies, and I loved (and played) it to death.

Studio savant that he is, Rundgren recorded three of the LP’s four sides all by himself, and brought in a gaggle of studio musicians, including Rick Derringer, Randy and Mike Brecker, Hunt and Tony Sales, and Ben Keith to record side four. All four sides have titles, which we needn’t worry about, and side four purports to be a “pop operetta,” to which I can only say okay, Todd, it’s your LP. The critic Robert Christgau said of Something/Anything?, “I don’t trust double albums” before changing tracks and saying, “But this has the feel of a pop masterpiece, and feel counts.” He’s right about double albums: some of the tunes on Something/Anything? do nothing for me and have the distinctive smell of filler. That said, there are more than enough timeless tunes on Something/Anything? to justify that other overused word, “masterpiece.”

Stirring ballads (“It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference”), dizzyingly marvelous power pop numbers ala The Raspberries (“Couldn’t I Just Tell You”), flat-out screamers (“Some Folks Is Ever Whiter Than Me”), great horn-driven hard rockers (“Slut”), Steely Dan soundalikes (“Piss Aaron”), utterly sublime pop confections (“Hello, It’s Me,” “I Saw the Light”) and oddball novelty tunes that nevertheless rock (“Wolfman Jack”)—that “anything” in the album’s title is Todd’s way of telling us he can do it all, and does. Why, I didn’t even mention his soulful turns on the piano (“I Went to the Mirror,” “Torch Song”), maniacal metal contraptions (“Little Red Lights,” the big-hooked “Black Maria”), big, bad gospel- AND Steely Dan-tinged tunes (“Dust in the Wind”), ironic Harry Nilsson numbers (the happy-go-lucky sad song, “You Left Me Sore”), and brief lo-fi studio jams (“Overture—My Roots: Money (That’s What I Want)/Messin’ with the Kid”).

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