Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
Black Cab, Jesus East

I’ll never forget the first time I heard 2004’s Altamont Diary by Melbourne, Australia’s Black Cab. I was stunned, stunned to the point of total stupefaction. At long last, a concept album about one of my all-time favorite fiascos! And it was great, grand, a total triumph! My heart went pitter-patter. My brain throbbed, thrilled. And I developed a rare case of instantaneous tumescence, of the sort best described by the legendarily libidinous Henry Miller as “a piece of lead with wings on it.”

Okay, so I made up the part about the hard-on. But it really was a spectacular case of smitten upon first listen. And I’ve been smitten ever since. The band’s sound is a seemingly impossible fusion of electronica, Far Eastern instrumentation, and Krautrock, but Black Cab possesses the uncanny ability to strike precisely the right balance between those influences, producing electronica-flavored songs that evoke both midnight candles bobbing on little platforms in the river Ganges and the droning propulsion of those prophets of the Autobahn, Neu!

That’s the great news. The not-so-great news is that their latest release, 2014’s The Games of the XXI Olympiad, is largely a venture into pure electronica. Don’t get me wrong. The album is a pleasure to the ears and was good enough to garner them a gig as openers for Tangerine Dream. But I miss, oh how I miss, the Eastern influences and Krautrock trappings that made Altamont Diary so brilliant. Which is why I’m ignoring their latest to review 2006’s Jesus East. It’s Krautrock-heavy and has been shown scientifically to provoke dancing in laboratory mice, who are notoriously picky when it comes to their tastes in music.

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Graded on a Curve: Flipper, Album–Generic Flipper

Sometimes I like to imagine how concertgoers, newbies unfamiliar with San Francisco’s Flipper, responded to their first exposure to the band’s murky and monolithic songs. I mean, like, fast and hard like RULED, man, and how could you mosh to this shit? I can almost see the band’s throbbing toothache of a sound pressing all those poor punkers into a corner of the club, where they could whinge and boo hoo about the band’s failure to provide the soundtrack for them to kick somebody in the head, before finally collecting their Mohawks at the door and heading home. Meanwhile Flipper was having a grand old time, giving what in effect was a great big fuck you to the very people who had paid good money to see them.

It’s hardly possible to say too many good things about Flipper. Their grinding din grated on the ears of the hardcore crowd; their lyrics were an intelligent spew of black humor and utter nihilism; and their singing was deliberately abominable. They were the bleakest, funniest, and most annoying band out there, and hence the greatest band out there, because like their spiritual brethren in D.C.’s No Trend they spit in the faces of hardcore conformists: you know, the ones who thought slam dancing and wearing the same badges and patches made them unique, which it did if by unique you meant exactly the same as everybody else.

Most people remember the grimly hilarious distortion rockers (who included Will Shatter on bass and lead and backup vocals, Bruce Loose on bass and lead and backup vocals, Ted Falconi on guitar, and Steve DePace on drums and percussion) for “Sex Bomb,” perhaps the catchiest dance single to never be played on a dance floor. (Or may be it was. The thought of it makes me happy.) But “Sex Bomb” is just one of the wonderful songs on Generic Flipper, one of the best—and most out of step—LPs of the hardcore era. While everybody else was out to set land speed records, Flipper was slowing it down to a Thorazine shuffle; theirs was no rocket to Russia, it was music for mental patients looking for music slow, sludgy, and unrelenting enough to drown out those evil voices in their heads. Henry Rollins said of them: “They were just heavy. Heavier than you. Heavier than anything…” By definition, a monster is a singularity, something that is sui generis. Hence Flipper was monstrous, and happy to be so.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Rolling Stones,
Their Satanic Majesties Request

Few albums have been as vilified or written off as colossal missteps as The Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request. There’s Taylor Swift Sings the Songs of Captain Beefheart, and Arnold Schwarzenegger Sings Barbra Streisand, but neither of these albums can hold a candle to the Stone’s 1967 answer to the Beatles’ acid-influenced Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Their Satanic Majesties Request was quickly dismissed as a shameless attempt to keep up with the psychedelic Jones’s, and the critical blowback was so negative that the Stones promptly hopped to it and followed Satanic Majesties with Beggars Banquet, an LP so down to earth a filthy toilet graces its cover.

Aside from “She’s a Rainbow” and “2000 Light Years from Home” you’re highly unlikely to hear any of Satanic Majesties’ songs anywhere, and the Stones themselves haven’t had much good to say about it over the years. Keith Richards called it “a load of crap,” while Mick Jagger said “there’s a lot of rubbish” on it. But it has its fair share of cultists, whole heaps of them in fact, and they love it to death. And their waxing enthusiastic over the LP finally got the better of me. Just how bad could it be, after all?

Not bad at all is the short answer. Strange, far stranger than Sgt. Pepper for that matter, Their Satanic Majesties Request has more than its fair share of fine moments, along with a few dubious tunes that don’t quite make the grade. Me, I’ll take it over Sgt. Pepper any day, and I think the Stones should be commended for putting out an LP that was even more experimental than its Beatles counterpart. Mick and the boys took real chances on the LP, and if they didn’t always work, at least the Stones tried.

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Graded on a Curve:
Fall Out Boy,
PAX AM Days

Is there anybody out there over the age of 13 who likes Fall Out Boy? I’ve been mocking them for years for playing low-rent emo (with increasing dance flourishes) at its most commercialized, this without listening to them of course. Sure, I heard “Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down,” and it nauseated me, as did songs like “Dance, Dance,” “The Phoenix,” and “A Little Less Sixteen Candles, a Little More ‘Touch Me’.” Call me a hater if you want, but I don’t mind being called a hater when the band in question adheres to a tired and tiresome pop punk template that has annoyed me since I first heard Bad Religion.

But a funny thing happened when I listened to their latest release, PAX AM Days. In short, instead of finding myself nauseous, I found myself actually listening. I was certain (and still am) that this was a symptom of premature senility, but I also had to acknowledge that some of the tracks on the new album lacked the characteristics (three-part harmonies, high cuteness level, paucity of mayhem) that I found so objectionable on their earlier releases. In short, they sounded rougher, tougher, and less out to please, and if they weren’t exactly breaking any new ground they had certainly wandered out of their commercial comfort zone, and that in itself was laudable.

Fall Out Boy was one of the biggest flag wavers of the emo pop explosion of the mid-2000s, and if there’s one thing I can’t abide, it’s emo. Setting honest emotions to a pop punk beat is my idea of Hell, and Fall Out Boy rode the emo pop wave to massive success, which just made me hate them more. About the only thing I liked about them was their collaboration on a song (the title track to 2013’s execrable and dance-oriented Save Rock and Roll) with Elton John, and the sad truth is the song isn’t even that good. As Robert Christgau wrote of 2005’s From Under the Cork Tree, “Only their record company would claim that emotional vocals, dramatic dynamics, poppy-punky tempos, and not actually all that catchy tunes add up to ‘their own sound.’” Translation: they were shameless copycats, and not very good copycats at that. Christgau also called the band pretentious, which put them in the same league with another band I’ve always despised, The Killers.

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Graded on a Curve:
Little Feat,
Waiting for Columbus

God save us from Little Feat fans. They are a large and fanatical tribe, and the music critic who says baleful things about their favorite band risks everything but a public lynching. I wrote a very positive review of one of the Feat’s early LPs a while back, and in said review took some potshots at their later-era work, accusing the band of smoothing off its rough edges, writing dull songs, and allotting keyboardist Bill Payne free rein to turn the group’s once freaky, roots-rich sound into a slick soup that bordered at times on jazz fusion. I would add I’m not alone—Robert Christgau said Payne’s synths “recall bad Rufus.” And while I have no idea what bad Rufus sounds like, I know an insult when I hear one.

I took aim at 1975’s The Last Record Album, 1977’s Time Loves a Hero, and 1979’s Down on the Farm, but I also directed abuse at the band’s legendary live album, 1978’s Waiting for Columbus. And that’s what sent the Little Feat horde into apoplexy. My recollection of the band’s first live LP was that it was good, but mortally wounded by both Payne’s synthesizers and general slickness. I said so, and what I received in response were dozens of posts from Feat freaks telling me in no uncertain terms that I was full of shit.

I vowed then to give Waiting for Columbus another listen, and having done so I stand by my original assessment. I don’t care if it’s considered one of the better live albums of the seventies; to me it’s the last gasp of a band that had been going downhill for years. Their later studio albums (meaning every LP after 1974’s Feats Don’t Fail Me Now) were polished in a way that no blues’n’boogie LP should be, and lacked good songs to boot. The sheer weirdness of their earlier LPs went the way of the dodo, to be replaced by the nondescript songs on, say, 1975’s so-so at best The Last Record Album. Songs like “Romance Dance” and the execrable and synth-dominated slice of jazz fusion that is “Day at the Dog Races” were a sad comedown from the days of “Oh, Atlanta” and “Dixie Chicken,” and seemed to signal both the desertion of Lowell George’s muse (his share of songwriting credits decreased dramatically post-1974) and the hijacking of the band’s rougher-edged grooves by the silky smooth synths of Bill Payne.

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Graded on a Curve: Pissed Jeans, Shallow and “Throbbing Organ”

A bank teller friend recently told me a true story that made me think of the noise band Pissed Jeans. It seems an old homeless man in a coonskin cap made a daily habit of lingering in the bank’s lobby to warm up. Nobody bothered him until the day a bank guard went over to make sure the old man was still alive, only to discover that what the homeless man was wearing on his head wasn’t a coonskin cap, but a dead squirrel.

I don’t know why the story makes me think of Philadelphia’s finest noise rockers, except that I think they’d find it hilarious. They don’t wear coonskin caps and they look like normal Joes, and in my opinion are the best noise band to come our way since Cows. They have an uncanny ability to find sick humor in the mundane, and rely on sarcasm, hopelessness, and twisted humor to get their point across, their point being that the everyday world is an awful, awful place. Their music alternates between plodding and pummeling and violent and fast, and Matt Korvette’s rabid spews on the quotidian bring to mind Michael Gerald and Killdozer at their best.

Pissed Jeans won my heart forever when I saw them live. On their “hit” “Boring Girls” they invited audience members to come up on stage to play the song while they hung about watching, something I’ve never seem any band do anywhere ever. It was great, especially since the band’s doppelgangers played a more than credible version of the song. I also love Pissed Jeans because they have a sense of humor, as titles like “I Broke My Own Heart” and “Ashamed of My Cum” indicate. And let’s not forget the immortal “Cafeteria Food,” which includes lyrics like, “Hey there, project manager/I saw you eating cafeteria food/So you want to call that a healthy choice/I’d argue that isn’t true.” Pissed Jeans truck in the hilarity of banality, and if the world is as absurd as I believe it to be, they’ll never run out of material.

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Graded on a Curve:
Bob Dylan, Saved

The rock world was shocked when Bob Dylan found Jesus. It shouldn’t have been. Dylan had spent the past 15 years undergoing crucifixion after crucifixion—when he went electric and the folk purists cried, “Judas!”; when his disciples wrote him off after the release of 1970’s still inexplicable Self-Portrait; and when those same disciples, drawn back by 1975’s Blood on the Tracks, nailed him to the cross again for 1979’s Bob Dylan at Budokan—and he was tired of being a Messiah. It’s no wonder he finally gave up and abandoned his status as a prophet to kneel, a humble acolyte, before an alien God. Let somebody else take the heat, he must have thought. I’ve had the shits of the crucifixion biz.

Ironically, his conversion (as revealed first in his 1979 LP Slow Train Coming) led to yet another crucifixion at the hands of his fans and critics, but he didn’t care. He was saved; it said so right in the title of his second Christian-era LP. By then I was amongst the crowd shouting for the hammer and the nails, and refused to even listen to either bloody album. To me Dylan was the guy who said don’t follow leaders and watch the parking meters, and frankly I was embarrassed for his sake. Embarrassed and disgusted. Religion, so far as I was (and still am) concerned is for slavish followers, and to find the haughty fellow who wrote “Like a Rolling Stone” amongst them was unthinkable, an abomination.

I avoided 1980’s Saved (as well as Slow Train Coming and 1981’s Shot of Love, the last of his born-again trilogy) for decades, because I lacked the stomach to hear my hero turned Jesus freak preaching the gospel via his music. And I probably never would have listened to Saved had I not heard “Pressing On” as sung by John Doe in Todd Haynes’ masterful 2007 Dylan biopic, I’m Not There. The song’s gospel flavor captivated me, although a few more years would pass before I actually listened to Saved in its entirety.

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Graded on a Curve: Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Pictures at an Exhibition

Remember The Fly? You know, where Jeff Goldblum (aka Seth Brundle) finds himself turning into a large “Brundlefly” after climbing into his teleporter, without realizing there was a housefly in the pod with him? Well, the same thing happened to Emerson, Lake & Palmer, three rockers who entered the telepod, one of them (I’ve always suspected Keith Emerson) carrying an LP of Béla Bartók’s “Allegro Barbaro.” It was an innocent mistake, but when they emerged they were a despicable mutant hybrid of rock and classical influences dubbed symphonic rock. And it’s bad stuff. Positively evil and poisonous stuff. In the words of Ronnie (aka Geena Davis) in the film: “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”

I’ve always despised ELP—and progressive rock in general—for its basic proposition: namely, that rock is somehow an inferior musical form that needs an infusion of REAL music, as played by REAL musicians (the kind who sit in orchestra pits) to make it respectable. Their emphasis on virtuosity is an insult to The Troggs, and I will not see The Troggs insulted. Most of the best rock has always placed a premium on simplicity, and on the fact that you don’t need to spend a stint in a conservatory to play it. It’s 3-chord people’s music, and ELP has evidently never liked the smell of the people, and prefers to ascend to the heights of Beethoven, Wagner, et al., while still keeping a rock beat.

To return to The Fly, I can’t help but wonder if it any point Keith Emerson awoke thinking, “I’m a rock-classical monster who dreamt he was a rocker and loved it. But now the dream is over… and the rock-classical monster is awake.” Or whether instead he thought, “I’m becoming something that never existed before. I’m becoming… Emermussorgskyson. Don’t you think that’s worth a Grammy or two?”

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Graded on a Curve:
Germs, (GI)

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:
The Groundhogs,
Thank Christ for the Bomb

Only two things in this world have the capacity to immediately cause my eyes to glaze over; the first is talk about politics, and the second is the phrase “British blues group.” The momentous impact that the introduction of American blues had on British musicians cannot be overestimated; John Lee Hooker and company instantly transformed a generation of skiffle-mad Brits into blues zombies, fanatical acolytes and slavish imitators of Muddy Waters, B.B. King, and company. Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, Long John Baldry, Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated, and countless other bands arose to preach the blues, and there was no way to stop their spreading like kudzu.

I’ve never been a blues aficionado, but Mayall, Baldry, and their like have always haunted and taunted me, goading me into giving them a fair chance, always to my disappointment. Their chief function, so far as I can tell, was as finishing schools for a very long laundry list of future rock greats. Why, Baldry alone is responsible for fostering such neophytes as Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, Julie Driscoll, Elton John, and others. There is one British blues group, however, that I actually find intriguing, and that’s the Groundhogs. Theirs is a most inauspicious name, and I can’t say I expected much after a friend recommended I give their 1970 LP Thank Christ for the Bomb a listen. But I’ll be damned if the LP isn’t excellent, combining great musicianship with intriguing originals that frequently deviate from your basic blues template.

The Groundhogs were formed in 1963 by titular leader Tony McPhee, the band’s guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter, who borrowed the band name from the title of a John Lee Hooker tune. The band’s history gets a bit twisted, so suffice it to say they briefly changed their name to Herbal Mixture (reefer turn-on alert!) before changing it back to the Groundhogs, and that Thank Christ for the Bomb was the band’s third studio LP, and fourth album overall if you count the 1968 LP they recorded with John Lee Hooker. The Groundhogs were playing as a trio at the time Thank Christ for the Bomb was released, with Peter Cruickshank and Ken Pustelnik joining McPhee on drums and bass, respectively.

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