Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
The Pretenders,
Learning to Crawl

“To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness,” quipped Oscar Wilde, and if the same can be said of rock bands, the Pretenders are careless indeed. The English-American rock band that was founded in 1978 in Hereford, England brought us such classics as “Brass in Pocket” and “Talk of the Town” before losing two original members, bassist Pete Farndon, whom Hynde fired for drug abuse in June 1982 (and who died from drug-related causes in 1983), and lead guitarist James Honeyman Scott, who died two days after Farndon’ firing, also due to drug-related causes.

The original line-up had recorded two celebrated LPs and one excellent EP, and anybody but tough-as-nails vocalist/rhythm guitarist and guiding force Chrissie Hynde might have taken the deaths of two integral band members as bad juju, and put the Pretenders (who took their name from the Platter’s “The Great Pretender”) to bed before somebody else kicked the bucket.

Instead Hynde, the band’ chief songwriter, regrouped. She kept on Martin Chambers as drummer, and recruited Robbie McIntosh on guitar and Malcolm Foster on bass to play on LP #3, but only after recording several tracks (“Back on the Cain Gang” an “My City Was Gone”) with guitarist Billy Bremner and bassists Tony Butler, while bassist and Paul Carrack of Squeeze played on “Thin Line Between Love and Hate.” And as it turned out the two-year hiatus proved only that Hynde had been right to keep the Pretenders alive, because the resulting album, 1984’s Learning to Crawl, is a tour de force; perhaps not as sensational as the band’ debut, but a Wunderkind nonetheless.

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Graded on a Curve: Journey, Infinity

I have always keep Journey at arm’s length, out of fear they might be catching. I lived through their glory years, when the wheel in the sky kept on turning and the lights went down in the city, and I hated Journey the way a bull elephant must hate, well, everybody. I hated them to the extent that had a passenger in my car suggested not changing the dial when a Journey song came on the radio, I would have reached over his person, opened his car door, and pushed him out. In a 65 mph zone. Journey was an MOR nightmare, a journey to the end of the blight, and they gave me the heebie-jeebies with their signature stacked vocals, songs that were impossible to get out of your head no matter what you did to dislodge them, and last but not least Steve Perry’s super-polished tenor, which just flat out irked.

But over the years my attitude towards Journey has softened. I still like to make fun of them, but call it nostalgia or the imp of the perverse, I no longer turn them off when they come on the radio. I sing along. It’s as if at some point in my past the band ran a musical train on me, turning me into one of those pussy Journey lovers I loathed. The part of me that still despises them is disgusted by the part of me that is singing along, but is helpless to do anything about it. Don’t get me wrong; I’m still no fan, but I have discovered that at their best Journey have an impressive skill at pop songcraft.

Journey was founded in San Francisco in 1973, and was made up of former members of Santana and Frumious Bandersnatch, a band best known for being completely unknown. Their first three albums, which did not include Perry, varied from jazz fusion to hard rock, the latter being most prominent on 1977’s excellent Next, which included a couple of great headbangers in “Hustler” and the instrumental “Nickel and Dime.” But they failed to break through to pop success, and on LP no. 4 (1978’s Infinity) Journey made several momentous changes; first they brought in Perry of the golden tonsils to handle lead vocals, and second they abandoned hard rock for a more commercial pop sound.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Heroine Sheiks:
Rape on the Installment Plan

I have a bad feeling that no one is going to read this review. But that’s not my problem. My problem, or I suppose it’s more of a gripe about a gross injustice, is that Cows/The Heroine Sheiks frontman Shannon Selberg has never gotten his just desserts. Minneapolis’ clamorous Cows put on the best live shows I’ve ever seen, and Selberg remains the most entrancing front man I’ve ever seen dominate a stage. Add a slew of wonderfully scabrous Cows’ LPs full of noise rock classics like “Hitting the Wall,” “Dirty Leg,” “Walks Alone,” “Allergic to Myself,” and “Cartoon Corral” and you’re left to wonder, “What does a maniacal genius have to do to become famous around here?”

Because the great American listening public repaid Cows (and its successor, The Heroine Sheiks) by consigning them to the fringes, along with other great bands from the Midwest like Killdozer, Halo of Flies, and Scratch Acid. It peeves me, it does. Here was an intelligent madman who wore a skinny penciled-on handlebar mustache, mousetraps on his ears, and a horrible wig beneath a battered cowboy hat but never cracked a smile. Instead he would puff out his skinny chest and belligerently stare down the audience, like Joe Pesci saying, “What’s so fucking funny about me?” Never in my life have I encountered a human being so simultaneously amusing and downright menacing.

When Cows took a metaphorical captive bolt pistol to the forehead in 1998, Selberg relocated to New York City and took a stab at acting before founding The Heroine Sheiks, a very different glass of milk from the brutal onslaught that was Cows. Selberg supplemented his trademark bugle with a cheap toy keyboard, and proceeded to produce songs that were less pummeling than slinky and slyly insinuating, although the band didn’t completely abandon noise rock. I remember speaking to Selberg by phone about The Heroine Sheiks’ debut album, 2000’s Rape on the Installment Plan (an homage to Louis Ferdinand Celine’s darkly hilarious novel Death on the Installment Plan), and he told me, I believe in all sincerity, that The Heroine Sheiks’ aim was to “put rock back in the fucking business.” Indeed, he predicted that their debut CD would become a make-out masterpiece, the next Let’s Get It On.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Raincoats, (s/t)

I love a band that has no idea what it’s doing. I’ve always considered amateurism a virtue rather than a vice, and preferred a band that is capable of producing only a vile racket to the slick musicianship of so-called professional musicians. Which is why I adore The Raincoats, whose early gigs were so bad one eyewitness said that every time a waiter dropped a tray “we’d all get up and dance.” But amateurish as they were, The Raincoats had the good sense to turn their lack of chops into an asset, by writing a bunch of punchy songs that made the most of what they could do, namely produce a sound that was as perversely catchy as it was chaotic.

Personally, I suspect the motives of the guy with his waiter and falling tray. I believe he was a closeted Haircut 100 fan, and immune to the charms of the all-female post-punk band from London and their uncompromisingly anarchic, yet inexplicably melodic, sound. One listen to their 1979 self-titled debut should suffice to convince anyone in their right mind that The Raincoats were onto something totally unique. Sure, I hear faint echoes of Television, Talking Heads, Mekons, and the Velvet Underground in a few songs, but The Raincoats were beholden to none of those bands, just as they owed nothing to their punk predecessors, eschewing as they did speed and power for more off-kilter effects.

No, what they were doing was creating a sound all their own, and as a result they stand alongside The Fall and PiL in the ranks your wonderfully idiosyncratic English bands. That they never made as much of a dent commercially as The Fall or PiL is just one more glaring injustice of fate, like the fact that I wasn’t chosen in the NFL draft despite my own high estimation of my imaginary abilities as a running back.

The Raincoats’ sound is not easy to describe. Abrupt shifts in tone and tempo, multiple voices clamoring against one another, lots of truly off-kilter drumming and dissonant guitar scratching, and the wild pyrotechnics of violinist Vicky Aspinall all contributed to a sound that could swing from harsh to lovely in a heartbeat. And the difference between their sound and what was happening around them was deliberate; they wanted to set themselves apart from the rock tradition, which they considered both sexist and racist. They succeeded to the extent that they never attracted more than a cult following, which included John Lydon and, most famously, one Kurt Cobain.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Mountain Goats,
We Shall all be Healed

Have you ever loved a record so much you’d throw yourself in front of a bullet to save it? Climb the steps of the gallows in its stead? Let it sleep in your bed and feed it chicken soup for a month to cure it from a bad case of the flu? I have, and it’s this one. Oh, sure, I have others, The Basement Tapes and perhaps the first album by The Band and maybe The Felice Brothers, but that’s it. The rest of them will just have to take the bullet and die in my arms.

John Darnielle, who is the Mountain Goats for all intents and purposes, hooked me with 2002’s All Hail West Texas and has never let go. I first saw him at SXSW, alone with an acoustic guitar in a cavernous dining hall, and my first impulse was to flee. I don’t do well with singers with acoustic guitars. They give me nightmares of Dave Van Ronk. But his astounding storytelling and ADD-hyper song delivery captivated me immediately, to the point where I ran out and bought West Texas, with its utterly brilliant opening track “The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton,” and I’ve been a wild-eyed disciple ever since.

Darnielle is bona fide smart, which isn’t always a help in the rock biz. But in his case he has turned it towards writing songs sharp enough to blind, story songs that will bend your head and fuck up your tear ducts forever. Take “No Children,” a song about a dissolving marriage that is as hilarious as it is touching. It’s less a song than a drowning, and so damn catchy you won’t mind there’s not a lifeguard in sight. Or “Best Ever Death Metal Band,” which is so indignant and perfectly constructed that you are 100 percent guaranteed to find yourself singing, “Hail Satan, tonight!” at its end.

Shit, the guy’s so smart he took one of those typically dull 33 1/3 books in which writers go off on their favorite album (his was Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality) and turned his into a novella, and a great novella at that. And he’s written a novel, Wolf in White Van, which was nominated for a National Book Award in 2014, to boot. Shit, I wouldn’t be surprised if he were to write a long and brilliant technical treatise on astronomy; he’s that kind of guy.

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Graded on a Curve: Sparklehorse, Vivadixiesubmarine-
transmissionplot

Some artists are like ghosts; even in front of you they are not there, and they flit away when you try to capture their essence, forever elusive, elusive to the end. Doomed, damned, accursed, fucked by brain chemistry; it makes no difference how you explain them, they are not long for this world. Such was the case with Elliott Smith and also with the brilliant Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse, who put out five LPs before killing himself in 2010 for the usual reason—he found the pain of living too heavy a burden to bear, and finally let that burden drop.

I say ghost, and when I say it I am talking as well about his music, which is as uncanny and lovely as the spectre of a long-dead Civil War bride. Working with imagery of the natural world, his is a music full of bees, horses’ heads, and cows, all of them transfigured via a kind of homespun mysticism that gives every line he sings an occult meaning, indecipherable to the living and dead alike.

A heavy sense of sadness weighs his songs; if it weren’t for that weight, I doubt we’d be able to hear them at all. Linkous’ struggle is evident in every note of his music, including those points when he talks about the wonders of living. This is music from the weird America that Greil Marcus talks about; it sounds ancient even at its most modern, like it was recorded on 78 by a character from a ghost story, or by a sage who could see through rocks to the nerves that throb improbably within them.

Linkous’ story is pretty well-known, so I won’t bother repeating it; suffice it to say that he moved to Richmond, Virginia, to escape evil LA and worked with Cracker as a guitar tech and roadie before recording his 1995 debut LP, Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot with the assistance of Cracker’s front man, David Lowery, who recorded it under the pseudonym David Charles. But Linkous was already a man on the edge, and there was the famous incident in which he ended wheelchair-bound for a while after cutting off the circulation in his legs following a brief coma in a hotel room after taking a shitload of meds; he rebounded, but the demons that pursued him and led him to abuse drugs followed hot on his heels.

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Graded on a Curve: The Smiths, Strangeways, Here We Come

Morrissey has long been the funniest man in the rock biz. The King of the Miserablists (my own word) and high priest of unrequited love has turned self-pity and general anomie into pop gold, and in the process has proven Samuel Beckett’s famous adage that “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.” But the Moz is more than just a jilted jester. He can hit the tragic notes too, although he often filters them through irony and his trademark humor.

Since his beginnings with The Smiths, Morrissey has cut a unique figure on the pop landscape. Fey, sensitive as a flower, yet possessed of a wit as cutting as a straight razor, Morrissey is the closest we’ve ever gotten to a second coming of Oscar Wilde. He strikes one as being much too tender a violet for this world, yet can vent contempt as well as Bob Dylan. Throw in a unique voice, and a personal life that is veiled in myth and conjecture, and you’ve got my idea of the perfect pop figure—one who looks at life darkly, but transmutes that darkness into irresistible pop songs. Really, is there—or has there ever been?—another pop star who could pull off a song as complex, ironic, and ultimately hilarious as “Girlfriend in a Coma”?

I’m one of those rare birds who, all things considered, slightly favors Morrissey’s solo work to his work with The Smiths. That said, I’ve always felt the pull of Strangeways, Here We Come, from its title with its mention of a now-defunct English prison to such moving songs as “Death of a Disco Dancer” and “Paint a Vulgar Picture.” Strangeways was the fourth and final Smiths studio LP, with Morrissey and Marr parting ways after some false information in the press giving the impression that Morrissey was exasperated by Marr’s side projects managed to sever their remarkably successful partnership.

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Graded on a Curve:
Elvis Costello,
My Aim Is True

The early Elvis Costello was the very personification of the angry young man. He may have looked like a twerp, but he had a chip on his shoulder the size of fat blues harmonica guy John Popper. He was perpetually peeved, was Costello, in the fashion of 1966 Bob Dylan, and like Dylan he could—and did—spew vitriol inspired enough to scald. Listening to his debut LP, 1977’s My Aim Is True, it’s as clear as day he’d just as soon see you paralyzed. So forget about the Buddy Holly glasses and the gap between his two front teeth and all the rest of it—musically, the man was a walking, talking third rail.

Costello (aka Declan Patrick MacManus) was born in 1954, just in time to ride the first waves of punk and new wave. He worked office jobs (they’ll always make you angry) while simultaneously looking for a record label. Stiff Records anted up, and Costello recorded My Aim Is True. Just how angry was he? There was the iconic moment on Saturday Night Live when he stopped the band during a song opening to replace it with “Radio Radio”—an attack on the media that SNL executives had expressly forbidden him to play. This moment alone increased his snottiness factor, which sold him records, which may or may not have been calculated. He said later, in an imagined interview I had with him—“I was never really pissed. I wanted to be James Taylor. But there already was a James Taylor. You can’t have two James Taylors. The world would be destroyed by fire and rain.”

There was also the infamous incident in which a drunken Costello, who was trading insults with Stephen Stills and Bonnie Bramlett at a Holiday Inn bar in Columbus Ohio, called both James Brown and Ray Charles “niggers.” It takes some doing to lead me to take Stephen Stills’ side in a debate, but Costello’s ugly outburst did the trick. Being a surly snot and angry young man is one thing, but this was a case of pure shameful ignorance, and Costello was smart enough to abjectly apologize soon thereafter.

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Graded on a Curve:
Pere Ubu,
The Modern Dance

A simple rule of thumb; if you’re going to name your band after a character from Alfred Jarry’s infamous play Ubu Roi, it behooves you to make music in the same spirit of savage satire, grotesquerie, and scorn that categorized Jarry’s play. A tall order, that. It requires inner resources of mockery, and an abandonment of all conventional notions of what constitutes rock music in favor of Dada-like convulsions of laughter and dread. And who’s up for all that?

Pere Ubu, that’s who. Cleveland’s “avant-garage” (their term) band was formed in 1975, when influential protopunkers Rocket From the Tombs imploded, leaving maniacal vocalist David Thomas and guitarist Peter Laughner to form Pere Ubu along with guitarist Tom Herman, bassist Tim Wright, drummer Scott Krauss, and synthesist Allen Ravenstine. Rocket From the Tombs played it ferocious and fast; Pere Ubu, on the other hand, played it loud and strange. Their 1978 debut, The Modern Dance, combined a few relatively straight-ahead rockers (“Non-Alignment Pact,” “Street Waves,”) with all manner of weirdness: odd and frenetic vocals by Thomas (aka “Crocus Behemoth”), strange and deviant synthesizer noise from Ravenstine, free jazz skronk, musique concrete, and distorted guitars, all of it seemingly based on the presumption that twisted music makes for twisted minds. Or should that be vice versa?

Whichever, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that while NYC bands like The Talking Heads were establishing a reputation for being “weird” by virtue of mere twitchiness, Pere Ubu, which was stuck in Ohio, was recording music that made The Talking Heads sound like The Archies. And I like The Talking Heads. I’ll freely admit to not liking Pere Ubu the first time I heard them, in Cleveland to boot, but I’d be willing to bet that disliking Pere Ubu’s first album is a not uncommon occurrence; they were just too dissonant and unrelentingly strange for most untutored ears. Frank Zappa had long played with similar elements, but he was no punker and specialized in jejune humor for young adolescents, while Pere Ubu specialized in the themes of alienation, angst, and paranoia (subjects that Pere Ubu did have in common with The Talking Heads).

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Graded on a Curve:
John Cale, Paris 1919

I like to play hard to get. You know, listen to an album for a while before I ask it out on a date. Sure, there are exceedingly rare exceptions—thunderbolts of instantaneous amour that make me lose my composure and babble on about how wonderful an album is, and how I want to take it home to meet my family, and go out and surreptitiously shop around for a ring. This was what happened the first time I heard John Cale’s 1973 LP Paris 1919.

The Welsh Cale will forever be chiefly remembered for his work with The Velvet Underground, but he was playing experimental music—you know, the usual, like an 18-hour piano marathon of a piece by Erik Satie—with the likes of John Cage and La Monte Young before he joined the Velvets, and has recorded in a mad variety of styles since then. I’m loath to call any one a genius, because I prefer to reserve the title for myself, but for John Cale I’ll make an exception. He’s put out many an amazing and influential record—and produced just as many for other artists—and you never know what he’ll do next.

Take Paris 1919. The LPs that bookend it—namely 1974’s harder rocking Fear and 1971’s more experimental and classically-oriented The Academy in Peril—don’t bear the slightest resemblance to Paris 1919, or to one another for that matter. I love both albums for their unpredictability, but most people, myself included, consider Paris 1919 Cale’s masterpiece. The reason why is simple—it’s chockablock with sublime and lovely songs that you’re guaranteed to fall in love with, just as I did.

Cale may have quit The Velvet Underground because he didn’t share Lou Reed’s ambition to become a pop star at any price, but that doesn’t mean Cale was uninterested in exploring pop’s outer suburbs. Paris 1919 is proof positive that Cale had a pop side as well—he simply dressed it up and presto, instant baroque pop. Or art rock, although I’m hesitant to describe Paris 1919 as such because the LP includes only one tune that even vaguely resembles rock, namely “Macbeth.”

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