Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve: Humble Pie, Eat It

When it comes to most 1970s double LPs, you can count me out. Especially the live ones. Bands almost inevitably saw them as an opportunity to stretch out, and engage in long, boring, and masturbatory free form shenanigans. Whole sides given over to one song! And in some cases, such as The Allman Brothers’ Eat a Peach and Canned Heat’s Living the Blues, TWO sides dedicated to one song! But look on the bright side. Should you ever decide you want out of this world, all you’ll have to do is put on Canned Heat’s 41-minute version of “Refried Boogie,” and presto! Suicide by ennui.

England’s Humble Pie was as guilty as the rest. On the band’s 1971 double live LP Performance: Rockin’ the Fillmore, Steve Marriott and company dedicated whole album sides to both Dr. John’s “I Walk on Gilded Splinters” and Muddy Waters’ “Rollin’ Stone.” Rockin’ the Fillmore is not so much an album as a tar pit, perfect for sinking slowly into on Seconal, Nembutals, and all the other great downers that made the seventies the Decade of Drool. I did my fair share and they were fun, especially when it came to basic motor skills, so much fun indeed that I once attempted to force a forkful of spaghetti into my forehead.

But Humble Pie redeemed itself with the 1973 double LP Eat It, because (1) I spent a lot of time listening to it as a kid, (2) there was simply no beating front man Steve Marriott—the legendary former guitarist and vocalist for The Small Faces—when he was at the top of his game, and most importantly (3) only one of its four sides is live. Amazing! Not a 40-minute track to be found! And what’s more its mix of hard rock originals, quieter numbers, jacked-up soul classics, and good old hippie blooz inexplicably works, thanks to the wonderfully grainy voice of Marriott—one of rock’s most unheralded lead singers—three of the greatest backup singers ever, and a band proficient enough to master songs from any genre under the sun.

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Graded on a Curve:
Gary Clark Jr., “Gary Clark Jr. Presents Hotwire Unlimited Raw Cuts Vol. 1″

Gary Clark Jr. isn’t a musician—he’s a force of nature. His uncanny mix of rock, the blues, soul, country, and even hip hop will blow the top of your head off, and that’s when he’s hardly trying. The Austin, Texas guitarist has won comparisons to the best of them, and he deserves them—his live version of “Catfish Blues” will have you thinking Hendrix, but he’s blunter and less flashy. He’s more muscle than finesse, although he’s capable of the latter when it’s required. And if distortion is your thing, as it is mine, well, you’re not going to find better.

How great is Clark? Well, Austin’s mayor declared May 3, 2001 Gary Clark Jr. Day. Clark, a prodigy, was all of 17 at the time. He’s won numerous awards, played alongside dozens of superstars including the Rolling Stones, and gigged at the White House, which should have burned that evil structure down but inexplicably didn’t. You can also hear his music on various television programs. Even the late Idi Amin digs him, and went on the record as saying, “He’s so good, I wouldn’t even eat him.”

I love his more out there guitar work, which is why I’m such a fan of the awkwardly titled 12” limited vinyl EP, “Gary Clark Jr. Presents Hotwire Unlimited Raw Cuts Vol. 1.” Just three songs, but all of them extended jams guaranteed to sanctify the electric guitar freak in you. Recorded live, they demonstrate Clark at him unbridled best, letting his freak flag fly and cutting loose just for the funk of it. The “A” side, which was recorded live at Charlottesville, Virginia, smushes Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun” with Little Johnny Taylor’s 1964 tune “If You Love Me Like You Say.” The “B” side features an extended version of Clark’s own “Bright Lights,” which has been featured in a number of film and TV programs, recorded live in London. His fellow musicians included Eric Zapata on guitar, Johnny Bradley on bass, and Johnny Radelat on drums.

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Graded on a Curve: Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane, Rough Mix

Ronnie Lane is a hardly a household name, but he is one of my all-time favorite rockers. Whether with the Small Faces, the large Faces, or his own band Slim Chance, Lane’s lovely and wistful voice was always a pleasure, whether he was singing sublime ballads like The Faces’ “Debris” or “Oh La La” or knocking off a hard rocker like the hilarious Faces tune “You’re So Rude.” The world didn’t know what it lost when Lane died at 51 after suffering for 21 years from multiple sclerosis. But I can tell you what it lost; a soulful and sweet soul whose bass work and vocals had an integral impact on not just one, but two great rock’n’roll bands.

Lane was a frequent collaborator with the likes of Pete Townshend, Steve Marriott, and Ronnie Wood (the two of them recorded the soundtrack to the 1972 Canadian film Mahoney’s Last Stand, and it’s a tremendous series of rave-ups despite its almost total lack of vocals). He recorded four LPs between 1970 and 1977 with Townshend, but three of them are hard-to-find tributes to their spiritual mentor Meher Baba, who lent his name to the great “Baba O’Riley.” Their fourth collaboration was Rough Mix, which was released in 1977 and featured an all-star cast that included Eric Clapton, John Entwistle, Ian Stewart, Charlie Watts, King Crimson’s Boz Burrell, the ubiquitous John “Rabbit Bundrick, and Medicine Head’s Peter Hope Evans. Why, even Townshend’s father-in-law, the noted British TV and movie soundtrack composer Edwin Astley, makes an appearance. Sly Stone is right; this one’s a family affair.

Lane and Townshend eschew rock for the most part, opting instead to mine the folk-rock vein, and it works. Lane wanted to collaborate on songs with Townshend but Townshend declined, and this collection of songs by two separate songwriters has a disparate feel, which is another way of saying it’s stylistically all over the map. But what holds it together is the passion both men pour into the songs, which stray from pure folk ballads to a pair of rave-ups to a handful of songs that defy easy definition, but show that both men showed up at the sessions—this despite the fact that Lane had just discovered he was ill—at the top of their game. No throwaways, in other words, or songs they didn’t think were good enough for their primary bands—they came to record great music, not just fuck around and jam.

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Graded on a Curve: Robbie Williams, Intensive Care

What do you do when you’ve spent your lonely teen years idolizing Elton John, loving Elton John, ADORING Elton John, only to wake up one day to realize you’re 56 years old and need a substitute, a new Elton John in your life, to help see you through the long banal days and long lonely nights? Why you turn to Robbie Williams, of course. Williams is England’s best stab at providing us with a latter-day Captain Fantastic—to wit, a prolific hit machine who writes catchy songs and gets no respect from the right people, but is beloved by millions.

I fell in love with Williams the first time I heard “Angels.” It’s as close as any human has ever come to writing a new “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” and I swooned and don’t care who knows it. Bigger than life and anthemic as all fuck, “Angels” is all swirling strings and crescendos over which Williams pours, depending on your point of view, saccharine or his very heart blood.

Williams has come a long way since the acrimonious end of his first (1990-95) tenure in the boy band Take That—indeed, he’s one of the best-selling artists of all time, topping the likes of Beyoncé, The Black Eyed Peas, and Joseph Stalin, another Take That alumnus. He’s partied with Oasis and lived, released 11 solo albums, and bared his bum for the cover of 2014’s Under the Radar Volume 1, unless that’s a stunt bum I’m looking at as I write this. And he seems like a nice bloke, which is quaint, although for all I know he’s no friendlier than Heinrich Himmler, yet another Take That alum.

If there’s one thing you have to hand Williams, it’s he knows how to make an entrance. Take 2005’s Intensive Care. He opens the catchy “Ghosts,” its inaugural track, with the lines, “Here I stand victorious/The only man who made you cum.” Top that, friend. It’s your standard lovelorn affair with a great chorus, over which Williams says things like “me and you” and “we could have made it.” The backing vocals are wonderful, the strings transcendental, and while Elton John is no ghost I can feel his aura hovering over this one. “Tripping” opens with some ska drums and is ska flavored and reminds me of The Police, a band I can only compare to rickets. Williams switches back and forth from his regular voice to a falsetto, and there’s a brief hip-hop interlude that only makes things worse. In short I don’t like “Tripping,” but then there are plenty of Elton John songs (especially that one about Lady Di kicking the royal bucket) I don’t like either.

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Graded on a Curve:
Van Morrison,
Astral Weeks

It is unfortunate that my only clear image of the great Van Morrison is at The Band’s Last Waltz, where the pudgy Morrison, resplendent in an awful brown pants suit speckled with sequins, ends a sublime version of “Caravan” with a series of ludicrous leg kicks, all of which are unintentionally hilarious. I always have to remind myself that Morrison—with his “little fireplug body” to quote Lester Bangs—is one of the Immortals, and that his 1968 album Astral Weeks is one of the best rock LPs ever recorded and certainly in my Top Ten, and this despite the fact that I don’t even like half of its eight songs.

Less an LP than a spiritual attempt to storm Heaven, Astral Weeks showed Van Morrison to be a seeker in search of some unreachable mystical plane—like John Coltrane, only playing a kind of jazz-folk hybrid instead of free jazz. His vocal phrasing speaks to this search; he repeats words, stuttering and stammering and scatting his way to a breakthrough to some otherworldly place, while the mostly jazz musicians behind him play ethereally lovely melodies that provide the perfect counterpoint to his quest. I will go out on a limb and say this is more than just Morrison’s masterpiece—it’s the most spiritual rock LP ever produced, and Morrison the visionary’s most perfect expression of his attempt to utter the unutterable.

Astral Weeks was Morrison’s second LP. Recorded in 1967 with a crew of jazzmen only one of whom he’d met or played with, he told them to more or less wing it, and they did, to remarkable effect. Not everybody liked this approach; “No prep, no meeting,” said double bassist Richard Davis, whose remarkable playing dominates the contributions of his fellow musicians. “He was remote from us, ’cause he came in and went into a booth… And that’s where he stayed, isolated in a booth. I don’t think he ever introduced himself to us, nor we to him…” The Velvet Underground’s John Cale—who was recording in an adjoining studio—echoed Davis’ comments about Morrison isolating himself from his fellow players, saying, “Morrison couldn’t work with anybody, so finally they just shut him in the studio by himself. He did all the songs with just an acoustic guitar, and later they overdubbed the rest of it around his tapes.” But this is untrue; Morrison WAS in a separate booth, but the other musicians were playing along in another room, all but the strings and horns that is, which were recorded after the songs had been recorded.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Byrds,
Greatest Hits

So I died and went to Heaven (naturally) and who should I see as I step off that divine airline but The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn. Which took me back a bit, as McGuinn is still very much alive. So I said, “Roger, sir, what are you doing here?” and he replied, “God likes my music so much he’s given me a hall pass to come and go as I please.” So I asked him what the Lord’s favorite Byrds songs are and he said, “Well, you’d think it would be ‘The Christian Life’ but he actually doesn’t like that one very much. Says it’s a straightedge bummer. No, the song that always gets him is ‘Wasn’t Born to Follow’ or, if he’s been partaking of the magic mushrooms that are everywhere up here, ‘Eight Miles High.’ Says it can turn the most twisted trip into a Holiday Inn of the Mind.”

So here I am, typing this in between playing chess with Sam Cooke and drinking brandy with Richard Manuel, and basically all I want to say is that The Byrds were a great band, a very great band. Stylistically they traveled a weird but not unique road from their early days as the Jet Set, from folk rock to psychedelia to pure country to a combination of all of the above, while establishing themselves as the world’s best Dylan interpreters—so that with every new album you didn’t know what you were going to get, but you knew it would be interesting. Between the band’s extraordinary harmonies to McGuinn’s guitar tuned to the key of LSD it was hard to go wrong. And the talent! Between McGuinn (who was calling himself Jim then) and David Crosby and Gram Parsons and Gene Clark and Chris Hillman and Clarence White—all of whom passed through The Byrds at one point of another—they had enough great musicians to fill a whole wall in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

And the problem with The Byrds is figuring out which album to review, because between the innovative folk rock of their first LPs, the psychedelia of their later LPs, the cosmic country of Sweetheart of the Radio, and the powerful but not so easy to categorize later albums such as The Notorious Byrd Brothers (which inexplicably features three of The Byrds and Mr. Ed on its cover) I’ll be damned if I can choose a favorite, which is why I’m reviewing The Byrds’ Greatest Hits, which is great but limited because it came out in 1967—after only four albums—and hence before they recorded some of their best songs, such as “Wasn’t Born to Follow,” “Hickory Wind,” “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” “Bad Night at the Whiskey,” and “Chestnut Mare.” It’s also too heavy on the Dylan—four songs out of ten? Come on!—but it remains the best alternative to anyone looking for a single LP overview of the band’s many transmutations.

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Graded on a Curve:
Easy Rider, OST

After seeing Easy Rider for the first time, I wanted nothing more than to take off across America on a chopper with a tear drop gas tank emblazoned with the red, white, and blue, smoke tons of grass and gobble lots of acid, and meet a lunatic ACLU lawyer in a gold football helmet looking to turn on, tune in, and drop out. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be, as my first motorcycle ride also turned out to be my last, after losing control of the thing and crashing head-on into our next door neighbor’s barn. And nothing’s changed over the years; the last time I tried to ride a bicycle I decided to smoke a cigarette at the same time, and ended up toppling into some rat-infested shrubbery.

So Captain America I’m not. But I love the movie, which was all about freedom, man, freedom to wear your hair long and get stoned and do whatever the hell you wanted to do without kowtowing to the Man, man. Billy (Dennis Hopper) and Captain America (Peter Fonda) represented the outlaw biker life, which came without the shackles of job, home, and hearth, but carried its own risks; as the ACLU lawyer Hanson (Jack Nicholson) tells Billy and Captain America, their freedom makes the squares “dangerous. Buh, neh! Neh! Neh! Neh! Swamp!”

But the thing I love most about the world’s greatest hippie exploitation film is its soundtrack, the rights to which cost more than the film itself. It includes two great Steppenwolf tunes and one and a half Dylan tunes, both of which were performed by Roger McGuinn, and intersperses dope anthems with dismal songs of doom, in keeping with the movie’s groovier moments and lingering sense—what with homicidal rednecks and pigs everywhere—that things won’t end well for Billy, Captain America, and Hanson. (Spoiler alert! Shit, too late.) And when I talk about the soundtrack I’m not talking about the 2004 Deluxe Edition, but the one you could listen to in your groovy pad with its beaded doorways, day glo ceilings, and black light poster of Three Dog Night (okay, so you were one very unhip hippie; don’t beat yourself up about it).

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Graded on a Curve:
Bob Dylan, Dylan

It’s tough having heroes. They test you, they torment you, and they let you down in the end. And folks who have Bob Dylan as a hero have it twice it hard. He has pulled so many boneheaded musical stunts over the years—Street-Legal, Bob Dylan at Budokan, and that horror of horrors, Self-Portrait—that it’s hard to believe he isn’t two people, one the genius who gave us Highway 61 Revisited and The Basement Tapes and the other the moron who thought it would be a good idea to record “Blue Moon” and sing a duet with himself on Paul Simon’s “The Boxer.” To say nothing of “Let It Be Me.”

All of the above cuts come from Dylan’s 1970 travesty of an album, Self-Portrait. It was impossible at the time to imagine he could do worse, but it has never paid to underestimate Bob Dylan, and he could and did do worse with 1973’s unspeakable Dylan. And no wonder: the songs on Dylan were outtakes from Self-Portrait and 1970’s New Morning, which was mediocre but got called genius by people still so in shock over the trauma of Self-Portrait that they took New Morning as a return to form. Imagine: songs too crappy to put on Self-Portrait! The results, as critic Robert Christgau put it, had a “morbid fascination… like watching Ryne Duran pitch [the famously near-blind pitcher with the blazing and potentially lethal fastball] without his glasses.”

I’ll never forget the first time I heard the album: the best I could figure was he’d been hit on the head by a fallen refrigerator, or had gotten his hands on some drug that immediately turned your brain to mulch. Or that he was tired of being everybody’s prophet and was deliberately laying waste to his own reputation by putting out the worst dreck he could imagine, and performing it like a madman to boot. The third is the most plausible; Dylan has made enigmatic comments pointing in that direction such as, “And I said, ‘Well, fuck it. I wish these people would just forget about me. I wanna do something they can’t possibly like, they can’t relate to. They’ll see it, and they’ll listen, and they’ll say, ‘Well, let’s get on to the next person. He ain’t sayin’ it no more. He ain’t given’ us what we want,’ you know?”

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Graded on a Curve:
Loggins and Messina,
Loggins and Messina

Let’s get one thing straight right now; I’m docking this LP a half grade solely because of Kenny Loggins’ hair and beard combo. It’s atrocious. He looks like the mutant offspring of a muskrat and David Cassidy. And I’m docking the LP another half grade for “House on Pooh Corner,” which isn’t even on the album. We all okay with that? Good. Business out of the way, let’s saunter back to 1972, that dark year of Richard Nixon’ reelection, and get ourselves acquainted with Kenny Loggins and Jim Messina’s eponymous sophomore LP.

Loggins and Messina were the epitome of soft rock, or nerf rock as I like to call it. Their gentle vocals were designed to soothe the savage hippie, who’d spent the past five years doing STP, getting busted, getting beat up at Altamont by Hell’s Angels with pool cues, and/or getting murdered by either the Ohio National Guard or the Manson Family. Everybody was paranoid and needed a break, some musical Valium as it were, and folks like Loggins and Messina, James Taylor, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, CSN&Y, and innumerable other artists were there to provide it. You could sit back in your bean bag chair, turn on Loggins and Messina, and be transported via their soothing harmonies to a kinder, gentler world, one without Vietnam, drug burns and ODs, and hostile pigs. Things were safe there. You could dream yourself right out of the ugly, post-Aquarian apocalypse.

Loggins and Messina weren’t born as a duo; Loggins was a little-known singer/ songwriter, while Messina—well known thanks to stints in Buffalo Springfield and Poco—was an independent record producer for Columbia Records. Their goal was to produce a Loggins LP, but given Messina’s significant musical input—to say nothing of his name recognition and the belief that it would increase album sales—the two ultimately decided to form a duo. Their first LP, 1971’s Sittin’ In, or to use its full name, Kenny Loggins with Jim Messina Sittin’ In, produced such tunes as successes as “Danny’s Song,” “Vahevala,” and “House of Pooh Corner,” which still stands as the most treacly song of all time, beating out even Morris Albert’s molasses apocalypse, “Feelings.”

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Graded on a Curve: Lungfish, Artificial Horizon

If you want to see me run and hide, merely utter the word “emo.” A slippery and nebulous genre, emo, but basically it encompasses any band whose lead singer spent his sophomore year in high school writing deeply sensitive poetry he didn’t show anybody, and who possesses the sense of humor of a garden gnome. Invented in my crapulous adopted home town of Washington, D.C. by the Rites of Spring, it spread like a sincerely fatal virus across the nation, leading to many sensitive singers expressing their most heartfelt emotions in an intense manner while subjecting those of us who didn’t care to suffer for somebody’s else’s art much emotional anguish.

All that said, I’ll make an exception for Baltimore, Md.’s Lungfish, because while they’ve occasionally been lumped under the emo banner I don’t hear much soul baring in 1998’s Artificial Horizon. What I hear is rock solid, no frills, well-played post-hardcore, and far from being journal-entry poetic singer Daniel Higgs’ lyrics are minimalistic. Indeed, he often doesn’t sing at all. Perhaps what got Lungfish labeled as emo was Higgs’ seeming lack of a sense of humor. But overall Lungfish’s emo classification just goes to show you how misleading labels can be. If Lungfish is an emo band so are Gwar.

Formed in 1987, Lungfish has released 12 LPs, with Artificial Horizon falling right in the middle. Their LPs tend to be as solid as the Berlin cobblestone I keep on my bookshelf; they’re “nuthin’ fancy,” to quote the great Lynyrd Skynyrd, but they’re mostly excellent, especially if you’re looking for a band that sticks to what it does best and knows better than to tinker with a winning formula. As Higgs told an interviewer, “There’s a temptation to bring in all kinds of crazy new sounds but ultimately, we’ll stick with the guitars and drums.” That we includes, in addition to Higgs, Asa Osborne on guitar, Nathan Bell on bass, and Mitchell Feldstein on drums. The band does have an undeniable poetic bent; both Higgs and Feldstein have published books, a perusal of which would cast a brighter light on Lungfish’s emo quotient.

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