Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
Long John Baldry,
It Ain’t Easy

John William “Long John” Baldry was one of rock’s more intriguing footnotes, famous less for his own contributions to English blues than for the soon-to-be-famous sidemen he would introduce to public notice. A young Rod Stewart shared vocal duties with Baldry in the latter’s band Steampacket, and a young Reg Dwight—soon to find fame as Elton John—played piano and sang in Baldry’s band Bluesology.

The very long Baldry (he was 6’ 7”) was one of England’s first blues singers, but it wasn’t until 1971 that he released what most consider his finest album, It Ain’t Easy. Part of its success is due to the fact that he recorded it in convivial surroundings with two old friends—Rod Stewart, who produced the A Side, and Elton John, who produced the B Side and played piano on it as well. And it didn’t hurt that Stewart brought along Ronnie Wood and many of the players featured on his own Every Picture Tells a Story.

The Stewart sessions were riotous—Rod the Mod plied the musicians with cases of Remy Martin cognac and good champagne—to the extent that Baldry would later recount he recorded album standout “Don’t Try to Lay No Boogie-Woogie on the King of Rock and Roll” sprawled out on the floor. The sound is loose and jumping, and folksier than the John-produced cuts thanks to the presence of mandolin, dobro, 12-string, and slide. Ian Armitt’s raucous boogie-woogie piano warms up Side A as well.

Baldry wasn’t the world’s best blues singer by any means. He enunciated when he should have gone for the slur, and applied a Shakespearean actor’s touch to most everything he laid his tonsils on. But on the roof-shaking rave-up “Don’t Try to Lay No Boogie-Woogie on the King of Rock and Roll” he just jumps in swinging, and lets the flood—composed of equal parts guitar menace, piano onslaught, and sax squeal—carry him along. This one’s a lost classic for sure, and definitive.

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Graded on a Curve: Frankie Goes to Hollywood,
Welcome to the Pleasuredome

Take one very ambitious but rather feckless band of Liverpudians and the biggest manufactured hype this side of Jobriath and what you get is a punchline that just keeps on giving; the words “Frankie Goes to Hollywood” still provoke widespread mirth 33 years later. Why just last week I saw a character in the British TV sitcom Toast of London wearing a “Frankie Says Relax” t-shirt and it was all could do to stop from weeping with laughter.

But let’s relax for a moment and ask, “Was the whole Frankie Goes to Hollywood phenomenon really as risible as all that?” The Liverpool quintet may always remain the personification of the words “flash in the pan,” but there’s no denying the greatness of “Relax” and “The Power of Love.” And the very tribal “Two Tribes” is nothing to sneeze at either. And speaking just for myself, I find it hard to resist a band with the stones to release a very campy take on B. Springsteen’s sacrosanct “Born to Run.”

1984’s sprawling Welcome to the Pleasuredome is a textbook case of overweening ambition; it took chutzpah for Frankie Goes to Hollywood to make their debut a double album, and a conceptual double album at that. But if you’re riding a wave of hype why not make it tidal wave? Vocalist Holly Johnson and mates were nothing if not brash, and you have to hand it to a band that was pure dead certain two albums sides of their fusion of pop, dance, and vaguely tribal “riddims” just wouldn’t be enough. I’m rather surprised they didn’t release a triple.

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Graded on a Curve:
Three Dog Night,
The Complete Hit Singles

I may have liked the songs of Three Dog Night when I was 12 but I never liked Three Dog Night, and I don’t think I’m alone. I’m convinced there were once lots of people who liked the songs of Three Dog Night but I’m not convinced anyone really liked Three Dog Night ever, and the reason for this is they were gormless and completely lacking in what for a better term I’ll call character. Three Dog Night performed other people’s songs but they never managed to imprint their personality on any of them for the simple reason that they didn’t have a personality. They were the hollow men of rock and roll.

I could be wrong about this. It’s even possible you’re a fan of Three Dog Night. But I fail to see how this is possible. The faceless lot in TDN—I couldn’t pick Chuck Negron out of a police line-up to save my life—didn’t so much interpret other artists’ material as dry clean the life out of it. They were faux hippies whose appointed task was to render palatable such great songs as “Mama Told Me Not to Come” and “Try a Little Tenderness” to other faux hippies, counterculture quislings, and the like. Not surprisingly, they sold like a bazillion records.

So far as I can tell, Three Dog Night did not write a single song on 2004’s The Complete Hit Singles. Which is to say they were professional interpreters. But unlike, say, Joe Cocker or Janis Joplin, Three Dogged Night never, so far as I can tell, improved upon a single song they chose to cover, and that includes Hoyt Axton’s “Never Been to Spain.” And no offense to Mr. Axton intended, if you can’t improve upon old Hoyt just what is your reason for being?

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Graded on a Curve:
Stevie Wonder,
Original Musiquarium I

Like many justifiably horrified Homo sapiens, I have long allowed the icky likes of “Ebony and Ivory” and “I Just Called to Say I Love You” to (dis)color my appreciation of the undeniable genius of Stevie Wonder. Sure, the greatest blind black soul singer this side of Ray Charles has the unfortunate tendency of coming across like a singing Hallmark card. But he also has his ferocious side; “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” is perhaps the most snarling musical putdown to come along since Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.”

And on the 1982 Tamla Records compilation Original Musiquarium I you can hear Wonder in all his funky glory. A collection of singles, album takes, and previously unreleased songs from 1972-1982, Original Musiquarium I doesn’t spare us Stevie’s softer side, but it largely (there are some frightening exceptions) spares us the worst of Stevie’s easy-listening side. And more importantly it showcases Wonder’s meanest and funkiest songs. In short it’s a far from ideal portrait of Wonder at his best, but it may just be the best we’re going to get until somebody wakes up and releases a comp with a title like The Electrifying Sound of Stevie Wonder!

Perhaps the best thing about Original Musiquarium I is the way it’s laid out. Wonder has been kind enough to separate his kickass tracks from his treacle tracks on separate sides, allowing this guy to avoid the latter. I play Side One over and over again because it’s is a précis of Wonder at his most hard hitting—the positively evil “Superstition” is followed by “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” which is followed by the fantastically grim “Livin’ in the City” which is followed by 1982’s previously unreleased “Front Line,” an anti-war song for the ages featuring some truly nasty guitar by Benjamin Bridges. I’d have swapped the brilliant “Higher Ground” (which appears on Side Three) for “Front Line,” but otherwise it’s as good an album side as you’ll ever dip your ears into.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Smiths,
The Queen Is Dead

I’m a Morrissey fan by temperament—of all the musicians who have ever lived, Manchester’s most famous miserabalist (he even beats Mark E. Smith!) comes closest to sharing my belief that hope is the lubricant that keeps the human meat grinder running—and because I consider him the funniest musician to ever kvetch into a microphone.

I can’t help but love a man who quipped, “What’s the first thing I do when I wake up in the morning? Wish I hadn’t.” And was quoted as saying, “I have found the best way to avoid ending your life as a bitter wreck is to start out as one.” The Mancunian misanthropist’s feckless take on life is utterly hilarious, and what I’ll never get over is there are people out there who don’t think he’s funny. No wonder Morrissey’s miserable; he’s a great comedian but nobody gets his jokes.

And the jokes just keep on coming on The Smiths’ third studio LP, 1986’s The Queen Is Dead. Morrissey possesses a savage wit; “Girlfriend in a Coma” is a black comedy for the ages. And on The Queen Is Dead Morrissey is in top form. He opens “Bigmouth Strikes Again” with the lines, “Sweetness, sweetness I was only joking/When I said I’d like to/Smash every tooth in your head/Sweetness, sweetness I was only joking/When I said by rights/You should be bludgeoned in your bed” and you can practically hear him cackling. And his take on dying a romantic death on “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” (“And if a double-decker bus/Crashes into us/To die by your side/Is such a heavenly way to die/And if a ten-ton truck/Kills the both of us/To die by your side/Well, the pleasure—the privilege is mine”) never fails to crack me up.

On other tracks his sense of humor veers wildly towards the absurd. He delights in the sight of a vicar in a tutu; he is astonished by the revelation that some girls are bigger than others, and some girls’ mothers are bigger than other girls’ mothers; he heads to the “cemetry” because it’s a “dreadful sunny day.” On the great title track Morrissey breaks into the royal palace with “a sponge and a rusty spanner” only to run into the Queen who says, “Eh, I know you, and you cannot sing.” To which he replies, “That’s nothing—you should hear me play the piano.” On the impossibly bleak “Never Had No One Ever” he hilariously puts a time stamp on a really bad dream (i.e., “It lasted 20 years, 7 months, and 27 days”) because he wants us to know that really bad dream happens to be his life. The man is a crack-up even at his most miserable, which is of course always.

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Graded on a Curve:
Minutemen,
Double Nickels on
the Dime

Like Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade, the Minutemen’s 1984 LP Double Nickels on the Dime is a comedy album by concept. What could be funnier than tweeking hardcore’s anti-music industry ethos by birthing that most bloated of all music industry beasts, the double album?

Overweening ambition flew in the face of the entire hardcore konzept—the medium was bested suited to the EP, where you could rip off six or eight songs in six or eight minutes and be done with it (see for example the Minutemen’s seven-song “Paranoid Time” EP from 1980, which clocks in at just over five minutes). But the Minutemen pulled it off and by so doing bequeathed us one of the finest and most expansive albums of the eighties, or any time for that matter.

And San Pedro’s favorite sons produced their double LP without surrending any of their much vaunted principles. Guitarist/vocalist D. Boon, bassist/vocalist Mike Watt, and drummer extraordinaire George Hurley heroically refused to elongate their trademark abbreviated song forms to make the task of filling four album sides easier. Instead they gathered up 45 songs—most of which were less than two minutes long, and none of which broke the 3-minute barrier—and fired them at our ears in a gattling gun, no time to pause between songs blur.

The results are dizzying, giddy-making, and sometimes bewilderingly eclectic, because like SST label mates the Meat Puppets the Minutemen never allowed themselves to be straitjacketed into the loud and fast constraints of hardcore. Jazz was always an integral part of the Minutemen sound, and they weren’t afraid to go the funk, country, folk, and spoken-word poetry routes either. Theirs was hodgepodge aesthetic, and half of the joy of Double Nickels on the Dime is waiting to find out what undreamt of turn will come next.

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Graded on a Curve:
Jackson Browne,
For Everyman

I’ve come up with a great contest idea. If you win second place Jackson Browne plays an intimate show in your living room. If you win first place Jackson Browne doesn’t play an intimate concert in your living room. Just kidding. Jackson Browne has never been my sensitive El Lay singer-songwriter of choice, but then again I can’t be said to have a sensitive El Lay singer-songwriter of choice. All I know for sure is he beats hell out of Andrew Gold.

That said, let me start all over again with two quick observations on Browne’s 1973 sophomore album, For Everyman. One: You would think a legendary singer-songwriter of Jackson’s fastidious ilk would have put more time into writing compelling songs. Two: The songs that are compelling are the ones he seems to have spent the least time writing. Does it make sense that we should applaud such a deep soul as Browne for what appear to be his toss-offs?

Why not? The serious Jackson Browne has problems. For starters, he’s not a very good poet, at least on For Everyman. It’s impossible to know what the hell he’s trying to say when he says things like, “Hanging at my door/Many shiny surfaces/clinging in the breeze” (from “Colors of the Sun”) or “I Thought I was a child/Until you turned and smiled” (from “I Thought I Was a Child”). Browne has a gift for the portentous that borders on the pretentious, but too many of his songs hinge upon lyrical vagaries that drift away like smoke when you try to parse their meanings.

More problematic by far is the fact that too many of the songs on For Everyman appear to have failed out of charm school. It’s hard to imagine a song more colorless than “Colors of the Sun”; the melody plods along like a workhorse, the lyrics are so much mush signifying not so much. And “Sing My Songs for Me” ain’t much better. Browne has a template for dirges like this one, and on For Everyman he repeats the formula too often. “The Times You’ve Come” has a more delicate feel but the result is the same; I don’t know what you call what Jackson does but I call it droning. The slow tempos drag you into a pit of ennui that only a quick listen to Elton John’s “The Bitch Is Back” will alleviate.

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Graded on a Curve: Blackmore’s Night,
Shadow of the Moon

What does it feel like to be a voluntary atavism? I can understand those contemporary rockers who fall prey to an irresistible urge to retreat to the days of rockabilly; life nowadays is so complicated and scary and it’s hard to fight the longing for a return to some mythical, “simpler” time.

But there’s looking backwards and then there’s really looking backwards and it took the unadulterated genius of Ritchie Blackmore—of Deep Purple and Blackmore’s Rainbow fame—to slither his way backwards in time the whole way to the Renaissance.

The Renaissance! Oh wondrous age! When the men wore codpieces and the women wore merkins and people got smarter! And folks wiped their greasy hands on the olde pub dog and suffered from black bile and lived to the ripe old age of 35! Those were great times if you were a fan of the Great Plague, and Blackmore—along with wife Candice Night, who does the singing—unwittingly provide an appropriately pestilential soundtrack for the Age of the Black Death.

The songs on 1997’s Shadow of the Moon would sound just right coming from the stage of your local Renaissance Faire. The problem is I hate Renaissance Faires. I was strong-armed into attending one once and it was all I could do not to beat the closest wandering minstrel to death with an oversized turkey leg. If there’s one thing in this world I cannot abide it’s a wandering minstrel. And lest you think Blackmore and Night would be offended by comparisons with Renaissance Faires please allow me to point out that they’ve seen fit to equip Shadow of the Moon with a song called “Renaissance Faire.” About the best I can say for it is that it’s every bit as vapidly pleasant as most of the other songs on this benighted LP.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Replacements,
Let It Be

Minneapolis indie rock heroes The Replacements went from snot-nosed “let’s get drunk and puke on the ceiling then fall down on stage” punks to power pop legends on the strength of the deceptively effortless songcraft of Paul Westerberg, and Westerberg reached his peak on 1984’s audaciously titled Let It Be. Taking on the Beatles takes cojones, especially from a guy who once sang, “I hate music/It’s got too many notes.”

Let It Be hardly marked the end of their “too shitfaced to play” ethos, but it was, as Westerberg would note, “the first time I had songs that we arranged, rather than just banging out riffs and giving them titles.” “I Will Dare” is a bona fide slice of pop genius; “Unsatisfied” is “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” with more heart and more soul than the jaded Mick Jagger could summon up if you tossed him into a pile of cocaine and supermodels and let him stew until unhappy. But Westerberg hadn’t lost touch with his inner punk; songs like “Gary’s Got a Boner” and “We’re Comin’ Out” would have been right at home on 1982’s puke punk classic Stink.

Let It Be is the sound of a punk growing up just to learn that growing up isn’t all that much fun. But grow up you must, as John Mellencamp could have told Paul Westerberg if he’d been willing to listen. “Everything drags and drags,” sings Westerberg on the doleful coming of age tune “Sixteen Blue”; “It’s a boring state/A boring wait, I know.” You try to call your girl and all you get is her answering machine and what does that mean? It can’t be good. And what can you really expect from the future? “Everything you dream of/Is right in front of you,” sings Westerberg, “And everything is a lie.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Yo La Tengo,
President Yo La Tengo

What’s not to like about 1996’s President Yo La Tengo? On it everybody’s favorite New Wave hotdogs express an urge to do drugs, name drop my favorite literary figure, deliver up some of the most discordant guitar mayhem this side of the Velvet Underground’s “I Heard Her Call My Name,” wax pretty as can be, and cover Bob Dylan and Antietam just to prove they can do it all.

The indie rock husband and wife team of Ira Kaplan (guitar and vocals) and Georgia Hubley (drums and vocals) have produced an embarrassment of riches over the years, in part because they have impeccable taste (which isn’t to say they’re necessarily tasteful) and an encyclopedic knowledge of rock history. More importantly, they know when to play rough and when to play nice with others. Theirs is a Jekyll and Hyde dynamic, and the tension between the two can be enthralling.

On President Yo La Tengo we get to meet both Jekyll and Hyde. The civilized Jekyll comes to us via “Alyda,” a lovely little number with a delightful melody that will make you swoon thanks to Hubley’s wonderfully understated drumming and lovely backing vocals. And Yo La Tengo is definitely in Jekyll mode on their slow and homely take on Dylan’s “I Threw It All Away,” which is both wistful and heartbreaking and (I think you’ll agree) does old Bobby proud.

On the Hyde side we have Yo La Tengo’s cover of Antietam’s “Orange Song,” which they play the hell out of at hardcore speed. The recipe is simple: Nice guy Kaplan puts a lot of growl into his vocals and plays some very mean guitar, while Hubley crashes and smashes away on the drums in the apparent belief that she’s the reincarnation of John Bonham. The result is a mosh pit in your mind, and you’re invited! This one was recorded live at CBGB, as was “The Evil That Men Do (Pablo’s Version).”

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  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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