Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
Kathleen Edwards,

“And you can’t even make up my mind/Another song the radio won’t like.”

If you ask me, and I don’t really know why you would seeing as how I’m not very smart and a renowned prevaricator to boot, Kathleen Edwards is the Queen of Alt-Country. “Ah,” but I can hear you saying, “Lucinda Williams is the Queen of Alt-Country.” And you might be right. So let’s just say they’re the co-Queens of Alt-Country, and avoid lots of useless bickering. It’s not like the position comes with a crown or bejeweled scepter or anything. Hell, people don’t even have to bow in your presence.

One could question Edwards’ bona fides, seeing as how she didn’t grow up in Texas or Mississippi or Tennessee or any of your good-for-nothin’-but-producing-country-stars Dixie states (just joshin’). She’s Canadian, for Christ’s sake, and spent her formative years overseas, the daughter of a diplomat. In short, she’s about as authentically “country” as Nico, and I suspect she’s never been within a mile of a three-legged pig. But who cares? Country is a state of mind, and to get to that state you don’t have to drive a battered Ford pickup down any gravel roads way off the interstate, where the roadhouses (and I mean all of them) have neon signs with one letter on the fritz. All you need is a guitar, a couple of albums by Loretta Lynn, and an attitude.

And Edwards has attitude in spades. The first song of her songs I ever heard was “One More Song the Radio Won’t Like.” It was so lovely, yet simultaneously scathing, that I became an immediate fan. She had it all: great songs with great lyrics, and the voice of a bruised but unbowed angel. It didn’t hurt that the album it came off was called Failer, which led me to believe, true or not, that she shared my belief that we humans were placed on earth to fail, and fuck up things real good. I mean I know it’s just a theory, but you have to admit that the history of our species backs me up.

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Graded on a Curve:
Patti Smith,

“Would it be a Patti Smith album without bullshit?” asked Robert Christgau following the release of one of her many albums. And he likes her. Me, I’ve mainly disliked her for years. Her 1975 debut is undeniably brilliant, but only to the extent that you can mentally filter out her “poetry,” because exactly 62 percent of the verse in Horses is pure horseshit. Her next three albums had their share of great songs as well, but only reinforced Smith’s delusional image of herself as the second coming of the famed French poète maudit Arthur Rimbaud, as well as the Official poet-prophet of boho NYC. I say delusional because even the most cursory reading of her lyric sheets reveals she’s neither a good poet nor a visionary. At her best she’s a poetaster and a second-rate Jim Morrison.

What irks me even more about Smith is she has somehow managed to convince ostensibly intelligent people (including the French Ministry of Culture, which named her a Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in July 2005) that she’s a sort of shamanistic priestess, when in fact, as John Strausbaugh notes rather cruelly but accurately in his 2001 book Rock Til You Drop, she is “one of the least talented posers in rock… Jim Carroll with breasts, Lydia Lunch with anorexia, the Madonna of punk rock: everything bad and pretentious about the union of punk and poetry in one self-conscious package.” She was only a punk poet priestess to the extent that she lacked a sense of humor (priestesses take everything, especially themselves, far too seriously to laugh), which even pseudo-acolyte Bobby Christgau conceded when he wrote she “always took herself too seriously” and “Good thing she’s a little nuts, because funny’s beyond or beneath her.”

In short, Smith put one brilliant album and three more-than-decent ones while being utterly humorless, totally pretentious, and the worst rock poet (because she takes herself more seriously) since Bernie Taupin. Except Taupin would never unleash a line as bad as “Wisdom was a teapot/Pouring from above” on a defenseless world, or for that matter the fecal mysticism of “The transformation of waste is perhaps the oldest pre-occupation of man/Man being the chosen alloy/He must be reconnected via shit, at all cost.” I don’t quite know what she’s getting at with that mini-lecture, but if it’s really true that shit must be transformed, I humbly suggest we start with her poetry.

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Graded on a Curve:
John Denver,
Playlist: The Very Best
of John Denver

Here’s the thing about Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. (aka John Denver), America’s late troubadour of the Great Outdoors: I’m not convinced he was human. Not only was he born in Roswell, New Mexico, that Mecca of alien conspiracy theorists, but he tried his damndest to become the first citizen on the ill-fated space shuttle, I suspect because he intended to commandeer said shuttle and steer it back to his homeland in some far-flung galaxy. And just look at him; that bowl-cut, those granny glasses, that ageless and innocent face—no way was this perpetual man-child one of us. He was a Muppet from a distant solar system.

Then again, Denver ‘fessed up to an affection for pot, cocaine, and LSD, got busted twice for DUIs, and during a particularly acrimonious divorce grabbed the chainsaw from the garage, headed straight for the bedroom, and sawed the marital bed in half. That’s not alien behavior. They’re too rational. When aliens get pissed, they simply shoot a high-voltage pulse of electricity out their index finger and turn you into a ball of fire.

Human or not, it behooves us all to recall that once upon a time John Denver was America’s highest selling performer. He may be hipster kryptonite, but during the seventies he put out a whole shitload of songs that lots of people love. And contrary to popular opinion, not all of them are schlock. Some, such as “Rocky Mountain High,” are great, so great that even I, a fan of the Great Indoors, love them.

I can tell you in a nutshell what I like about John Denver; he could get high on anything. The Rocky Mountains, sunshine on his shoulders, sailing on the crest of the wild raging storm. He may have indulged in substances both legal and illicit, but his favorite buzz was Mother Nature. Like it or not he’s America’s pop poet laureate of the wonders of the wild, which I personally avoid because I have zero interest in getting mauled by a grizzly bear, attacked by rabid chipmunks, or falling off a cliff and breaking both my legs, then slowly starving to death as vultures circle menacingly, mockingly overhead.

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Graded on a Curve: The Velvet Underground,
White Light/White Heat

Have you ever driven over what you thought was a speed bump, only to discover later it was your grandmother? I know, I know, so have I. Well, don’t beat yourself up about it. It’s partly her fault for falling face down in the street like that, and then failing (those old hips shatter like china!) to get back up. And the rest of the blame lies with the fact that you weren’t paying attention, but instead singing “too busy sucking on a ding dong” along with Loud Reed on “Sister Ray,” the centerpiece of the Velvet Underground’s magnum dopus, 1968’s White Light/White Heat.

Like many people I know and despise, I’ve gone through phases with the Velvet Underground. Their 1967 debut will be my favorite for a while, then I’ll switch allegiance to White Light/White Heat, and then I’ll go turncoat and spend a year or so listening only to Loaded. But I have given the matter a lot of thought, and have decided that White Light/White Heat is VU’s best LP, because it alone gets to the point, the point being that life is an absurd and awful place, and the only real and valid goal of art is to communicate said absurdity and awfulness in as absurd and awful a manner as possible.

Lou Reed was a Janus-faced fellow, an Apollonian and a Dionysian by turns, and as capable of producing songs of formalist beauty (“Pale Blue Eyes”) as he was of creating songs of seemingly chaotic ugliness (“I Heard Her Call My Name”). Me, I’ve decided (having spent the past year in an anteroom of Hell) I prefer the ugliness and chaos, and all of the nihilistic accoutrements that come with them. And on White Light/White Heat Reed was definitely in chaos mode.

As for vocalist/multi-instrumentalist John Cale, who would leave the Velvets after White Light/White Heat, he preferred the chaos to the beauty for aesthetic reasons having to do with his avant-garde predilections. Meanwhile, guitarist Sterling Morrison and drummer Maureen Tucker were simply along for the ride. That said, they weren’t unwilling participants in the creation of the masterpiece of malignity and malice that is White Light/White Heat. Morrison summed up the band’s collective gestalt at the time by saying, “We may have been dragging each other off a cliff, but we were all definitely going in the same direction. In the White Light/White Heat era, our lives were chaos. That’s what’s reflected in the record.”

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Graded on a Curve:

Sometimes I flabbergast myself. I think I know what I like and what I don’t like, only to find out I don’t know a damn thing about anything, least of all my likes and dislikes. Take KC and the Sunshine Band. I hated them with a passion for like 30 years and now I think they’re great. Or Elton John’s Caribou, which I liked for like 80 years only to realize just yesterday it only has two good songs on it, although to Captain Fantastic’s credit they’re two really great songs.

But occasionally I get it right the first time, as with Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” which I hated when it came out and still hate to this day. And the same goes for Television’s sophomore LP, 1978’s Adventure. People—as in every sentient human breathing air the year it came out—wrote Adventure off as a lackluster follow-up to the band’s 1977 debut, Marquee Moon. Everybody but me, that is. Because I had never heard of Marquee Moon. I didn’t even know it existed. Hell, I can’t even remember how or why I came to buy Adventure, because I had no clue as to who Television was and absolutely no inkling that they were an integral part of a musical revolution in progress at a ratty club in New York City called CBGBs.

But buy it I did, just as I bought Kill City without having ever heard the Stooges, which just goes to show you how isolating rural living was back in the days before the internet gave you access to all kinds of information, including who was who on the rock circuit. About all you got exposed to back in those days were hoof and mouth disease and square dancing, which is why I spent my teen years doing my level best to do as many drugs as I could get my greedy paws on, while trying to wrap my vehicle around a utility pole, which I finally accomplished on March 1, 1980. You’ve got to have goals, even in the boondocks, or life isn’t worth a damn.

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Graded on a Curve:
Lynyrd Skynyrd,
Second Helping

When people—and by people I mean people who can’t believe a person of reasonable intelligence could possibly like the rednecks in Lynyrd Skynyrd—ask me why I love the band, I always tell them the same thing. I tell them that Lynyrd Skynyrd was the best Southern rock band ever, Fight Club, a future meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous that was never held, and rock’s greatest tragedy all rolled into one. Of course it doesn’t convince them for all kinds of reasons, including Skynyrd’s prominent display of the Confederate battle flag, its contentious celebration of the state of Alabama and mock feud with Neil Young, “Free Bird”—you name it. Some people just love hating Lynyrd Skynyrd, and I wish I knew why.

I get the “Free Bird” bit—it’s long and goes on for a really long time and its been played to death on the radio—but as for the rest of it, I say phooey. I don’t believe—Stars and Bars and pro-Alabama song notwithstanding—that Lynyrd Skynyrd had a racist bone in its body, and people consistently fail to hear female back-up singers Clydie King, Merry Clayton, and Sherlie Matthews singing “Boo boo boo” after Ronnie Van Zant sings “In Birmingham they love the guv’nor” in “Sweet Home Alabama,” perhaps because they simply cannot conceive of a bunch of ignorant rednecks like Lynyrd Skynyrd possessing a sense of irony.

But I always thought Ronnie Van Zant was one highly intelligent guy, albeit rough around the edges and when intoxicated prone to punching people in the face and on occasion even attempting to push them out of airplanes in mid-flight. But I always found Ronnie’s foibles amusing, endearing even, and the fact is that when he wasn’t knocking Skynyrd keyboardist Billy Powell’s teeth out—twice—he was writing great and nuanced songs in the vein of Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings, only set to a rock beat. And still he couldn’t win; the same people (Yankee hipsters all) who think loving Merle and Waylon proves their open-mindedness still despise Skynyrd. As Robert Christgau noted when MCA released the compilation Gold and Platinum in 1979, “It’s not fair, really–everybody who was dumb enough to dismiss them as another pack of redneck boogie freaks now gets to catch up.” But most of ‘em failed to catch up even then, and what is to be said about such adamant close-mindedness except their loss?

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Graded on a Curve:
Delay 1968

I love microwaveable serving pouch. I love box of mac and cheese. But most of all I love Can. Formed in Cologne in 1968, Can—which was one of the first Krautrock bands and in my opinion the best—integrated psychedelic, experimental, and avant-garde influences into its great and hypnotically raucous music. Can’s methods were radical—you’ve got to love a band that spent 6 hours without a break spontaneously improvising “Yoo Doo Right” in the studio, only to pare it down to 20 minutes for release on vinyl. Hell, I don’t think even the Grateful ever played for six hours straight. Can dubbed such spontaneous jams “instant compositions,” and I beg to differ. Six hours is not instant. Soup is instant. Six hours is almost a goddamn workday. Hell, if it took six hours to heat soup, I’d starve to death.

Most people consider Can’s golden years to be those when the great Damo Suzuki—whom the band discovered busking outside a Munich café and was playing with them live that same night—was the vocalist. It was during these years that Can released such legendary LPs as 1971’s Tago Mago, 1972’s Ege Bamyasi, and 1973’s Future Days. I love that trio dearly, but have always had a soft spot in my heart for Delay 1968, which was supposed to be the band’s debut album and would have been the band’s debut album had they been able to find a single record label willing to so much as touch it, even while wearing biohazard gloves. (It wasn’t released until 1981, by Spoon Records.) Often labeled a compilation album, or an album of outtakes, Can bassist and recording engineer Holger Czukay has gone on record as saying Delay 1968 was intended to be Can’s first LP and bore the title Prepared to Meet Thy PNOOM.

My reasons for loving Delay 1968 have much to do with the band’s first vocalist, the American sculptor Malcolm Mooney. Mooney’s hoarse vocals, mad rants, and odd utterances added an element of derangement to Can’s often repetitious and strange songs, which are less propulsive and Autobahn-friendly, and often bring to mind German Captain Beefheart. And Mooney wasn’t just faking those lunatic vocals—following the release of Can’s proper debut, 1969’s Monster Movie, he returned to the United States, after receiving a strong recommendation to do so by his psychiatrist. Evidently he wouldn’t stop shouting, “Upstairs, downstairs,” which I imagine must have gotten on his fellow band mates’ nerves. In any event he left, and didn’t rejoin Can until 1989, when he returned to assume vocal duties for the band’s Rite Time LP.

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Graded on a Curve:
Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft,
Alles Ist Gut

I’m not a dance guy. You can ask anyone. And they’ll tell you my dancing brings to mind a man in bare feet leaping about on hot coals while being attacked by a swarm of apoplectic hornets. But I do like me some good industrial/dance/noise music on occasion. So I recently checked out the defunct Düsseldorf band Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft (“German American Friendship”), and boy, was I glad I did.

Not only did they release scads of great electropunk dance noise, but they actually wrote a song about dancing with Adolf Hitler! That’s right, they were Germans with an actual sense of humor! And not only that, but the brutal Thump! Thump! Thump! of their drums evoked the sound of 88-millimeter shells falling on Stalingrad. What’s more, vocalist Gabriel “Gabi” Delgado-López kinda sounded like what I imagine Josef Goebbels might have sounded like had he forgone the whole loser Nazi propaganda shtick and gone the club music route instead. In short, they made WWII rock!

D.A.F., as Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft are more popularly known, were formed as a five piece in 1978, but attrition soon whittled the band down to a duo consisting of vocalist Delgado-López and Robert Görl on drums, percussion, and electronic instruments. D.A.F. released seven LPs over the course of its career, and said LPs run the gamut from quite listenable to dead-raising cacophonies. My fave is 1981’s Alles Ist Gut (or “Everything’s Cool”). And not just because the “Deutsche Phono-Akademie,” whoever they are, awarded Alles Ist Gut the coveted “Schallplattenpreis” Award, whatever that is.

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Graded on a Curve:
David Bowie,
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars

Despite what you may have heard, or read, Glam Rock didn’t begin with Marc Bolan, David Bowie, or any other early seventies English rocker. It began long, long before that, during the Cretaceous Period, when dinosaurs ruled the Earth. Forget those plain and lumbering creatures you see on the Science Channel—those were the workaday dinosaurs. The real creatures, like Glittersaurus Rex and Giganotosaurus Glamii, were fashion queens and totally outrageous.

They knew theirs was a final age of decadence and lived it to the hilt, wearing mascara, eyeliner, feather boas, and fabulous neckpieces like the one Edgar Winter sports on They Only Come Out at Night. And glitter, of course—the terminal age dinosaurs adored glitter. On their faces, on their claws, and even on their thigh-high 8-inch platform boots, which made it impossible for them to run and are the reason they went extinct. Their elegy, if they can be said to have one, was uttered by David Bowie, who said, “If those dinosaurs were the spearhead of anything, it wasn’t necessarily the spearhead of anything good. Any era that allowed dinosaurs like them to become rampant was pretty well lost.”

But we’re not here to talk about dinosaurs, but about one of the greatest albums of all time. And not just Glam albums, but albums period. 1972’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars was a concept album recorded by rock’s premiere changeling—a skirt-wearing longhair oddball ex-mime named David Bowie, who decided that outrage was the name of the game and that the most fabulous route to stardom lay in dressing up like a mincing androgynous intergalactic space fop, come to spread the news of imminent apocalypse and the gospel of hazy cosmic jive. And it worked, worked so well in fact that even Bowie himself came to believe it. Soon every teen in Glam Britannia was dressing up like a spaceman in drag, and tossing the wanker rock (e.g., Edison Lighthouse, Leapy Lee) they’d been forced to listen to until then into the dustbin. This wasn’t rock’n’roll—this was recordcide!

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Graded on a Curve:
Colleen Green,
Milo Goes to Compton

Sock it to me! No, you bet your sweet bippy I’m not an extra on the sixties’ too-weird-for-words variety show Laugh-In; I’m just quoting the title of one-woman army Colleen Green’s latest LP. With guitar and drum machine Green writes songs she calls “stoner pop,” and they’re all over the place: she usually sings in a deliciously hushed voice, but not always, and her songs veer from the sweet to the swaggering, with a touch of The Ramones here and some muted synth-pop there, and the important thing to note about all of them is they’re catchy as Kuru.

Her sophomore release, 2012’s Milo Goes to Compton, is an obvious nod to the Descendents’ 1982 LP Milo Goes to College, and reflects her move to Cali from Massachusetts. It follows 2011 debut Cujo, which includes a song called “Mike” I’d like to think she wrote about me but didn’t. (Or at least I think she didn’t. Plenty of women have written songs about me, but most of the titles can’t be repeated in a family magazine like The Vinyl District.) It also includes a hard-rocking (she can do amazing things with that guitar) tune called “Rabid Love,” which I would also like to think is about me, but I think is about a raccoon. (I haven’t listened carefully to the lyrics.) And her newest offering, 2013’s Sock It To Me, includes such great grinding tunes as “Heavy Shit” and the slow and ominous title track, on which she plays some space rock keyboards and sings until there’s a kind of hush all over the world, and it’s emanating from your turntable.

I’m no big fan of drum machines, but they work in Green’s case because there’s something mysteriously mechanized about her vocals as well. She has a lovely voice, but her vocals are cold—not Nico cold, mind you, or even close—but cold nonetheless, and if that sounds like an insult it’s not. Even on such love songs as “Only One” she sounds like the coolest girl in your high school, the impossibly prepossessed one who never lost her cool, or her sense of impressive self-possession.

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