Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
Dave Matthews Band,
Crush

I am listening to Crash by Dave Matthews Band. I can only liken the experience to sticking my head in a big boiling bowl of suck. Why, you may ask, am I doing this? I’ll be damned if I know. I have always hated the Dave Matthews Band. Matthews’ unique brand of wussified jerk wank is anathema, the very essence of pure unadulterated pussification. My sister-in-law went to a Dave Matthews concert once and ended up in a hair-pulling tussle with another woman. The music of Dave Matthews has this effect on people.

1996’s Crash is often lauded as the best LP by the Dave Matthews Band, but this is rather like calling Mussolini the best dictator of the mid-Twentieth Century. What you’re really saying is it’s the least awful Dave Matthews Band LP. But awful is awful no matter how you slice it, and Matthews’ frat boy take on the jam band “Konzept” does for the Grateful Dead what Charles Manson did for hippies—namely, make people flee for their lives from what was theretofore a relatively benign cultural phenomenon. Seemingly sane humans are always telling me you have to see Matthews live to “get him.” Maybe so. But I would submit that the same can be said about a catastrophic plane crash. I think I’ll stick to watching Alive for the 97th time, thank you very much.

I suppose the reasons for hating the Dave Matthews Band vary from person to person, so I’ll come right out and say the reason I hate the Dave Matthews Band is I can’t stand the quirky way words emerge from Dave’s mouth. In any given song the first word may come out with a horrifying pop and the next word may come out all frat boy funky and then comes some over-earnest crooning and on it goes in a rapid timbre-shifting gush of vocal splooge designed to test my admittedly low pain threshold. Which is just another way of saying his vocal style is idiosyncratic and uniquely irkifying, which isn’t a word but sums up the effect Matthews’ vocal quirks have on my poor brain, which never stood a chance because a clearly vengeful God saw fit to give me ear holes running straight to it.

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Graded on a Curve: Lynyrd Skynyrd,
The Essential Lynyrd Skynyrd

With the 40th anniversary of the tragic plane crash that claimed Lynyrd Skynyrd upon us, I feel beholden to say that Lynyrd Skynyrd weren’t just the finest Southern Rock band to come out of America, but perhaps the finest rock band to come out of America period.

I’ll grant you the Velvet Underground if they’re more your decadent cup of tea, or the Doobie Brothers if you’re double-retarded, but there’s no denying that Jacksonville, FLA’s Lynyrd Skynyrd has mattered to more people and will continue to matter to more people than NYC’s Velvet Underground ever will. And by no means are all of those people unreconstituted rednecks who fly Confederate battle flags from the backs of their pickup trucks. No, as the Drive-By Truckers demonstrate, some of the best of ‘em are dyed-in-the-wool liberals who believe Black Lives Matter and aren’t afraid to shout if from the rooftops.

Some people will never like Lynyrd Skynyrd because they had kind things to say about the state of Alabama and mean things to say about Neil Young, but the fact is that Ronnie Van Zant, whom I consider to be one of the finest songwriters to ever walk this planet, never uttered an impeachable word on the subjects of race or white grievance or George Wallace for that matter. Even booed the fella in “Sweet Home Alabama,” for Christ’s sake. And as “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” proves, Ronnie knew damn well he was playing the black man’s music and was proud of the fact.

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Graded on a Curve: Spooky Tooth Featuring Mike Harrison,
The Last Puff

Spooky Tooth: The funniest band name this side of Foghat! And for the longest time that’s all I thought I needed to know about Spooky Tooth. I mean, I knew they spawned that super-enlightened astral entity known as Gary “Dream Weaver” Wright, but I never felt like any great desire to, you know, listen to them, because the few Spooky Tooth songs I had happened upon (“Evil Woman,” Better by You, Better Than Me”) reminded me of Deep Purple, and the way I’ve always looked at it one Deep Purple is already one Deep Purple too many.

But I was wrong, which are the words I plan to have engraved upon my tombstone if I don’t go with Rick Derringer’s immortal “Did somebody say keep on rockin’?” And the proof I was wrong lies within the grooves of 1970’s The Last Puff, which is the only “Tooth” LP to be credited to the unwieldy moniker Spooky Tooth Featuring Mike Harrison.

Why do I like this LP by “The Tooth” when I’m not so wild about the other LPs I’ve heard by the band? Well, it’s less ‘eavy in that bombastic Brit blues rock manner, for starters. On this one the band opts for grit over high-volume crotch wank, and it doesn’t hurt that the songs are solid but not flashy. Sure, the Joe Cocker song sounds like a Joe Cocker song and the Elton John song sounds like an Elton John song and yes the Beatles song sounds like a Beatles song, but the lads in Spooky Tooth—which included a future member of Mott the Hoople and several former members of Joe Cocker’s Grease Band—put their unique spin on all of ‘em, and in my humble opinion actually trump the Fab Four on the Beatles’ number.

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Graded on a Curve:
Eric Burdon and War,
The Black-Man’s Burdon

I cannot believe I live in an indifferent universe. Those spitballs must be coming from somewhere. And could an indifferent universe really be responsible for an album as weird as The Black-Man’s Burdon by Eric Burdon and War? Released in December 1970, the LP combined War’s unique brand of psychedelic funk and Burdon’s various vocal quirks with all manner of other influences, including soul, Latin, spoken word poetry, and R&B. Why, there’s even a jazz flute foray that sounds like the inspiration for Ron Burgundy’s deranged woodwind rampage in the film Anchorman. You could spend months trying to fathom this album’s dizzying stylistic shifts and turns. I’ll bet you it would be great fun on acid. Whether you’d escape with your sanity is another matter altogether.

Some hated this mishmash of an LP when it was released—The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau gave it a D+–but I like it a lot, with a few reservations. I’m not thrilled, for instance, by the 7-part “Paint It Black” medley that opens the LP, although it has its moments. Burdon’s jazzy and Van Morrison-like reading of the Stones classic, for example, has grown on me, and Dee Allen’s conga work is superb, as is Harold Brown’s drumming. But when the flute comes in I walk out, and the same goes for the aforementioned Ron Burgundy-flavored “The Bird & The Squirrel,” which along with the extended bass foray that is “Nuts, Seeds & Life” and the semi-ridiculous acid poetry over spaced-out jazz “meditation” that is “Out of Nowhere” makes a botch of Side Two. “They say they can’t understand me!” cries Burdon, “But I can’t stand to be understood!” Well okay then.

But I pretty much like everything else, starting with the jazz-funk exploration “Spirit” that closes Side One. I particularly dig Howard Scott’s taut guitar playing and Burdon’s soulful vocals, and Charles Miller’s long turn on saxophone is to die for. He pushes and probes like Coltrane, looking for a way out, for a way through the wall of Maya, and it’s, like, spiritual man. And Side Two isn’t a complete wash thanks to the herky-jerky funk groove that is “Beautiful Newborn Child,” which proves a song needn’t go anywhere to get somewhere. And Burdon and War’s two takes on the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin”—a song I’ve never particularly cared for—actually work, if only because Burdon wants to be a soul man and if that means over-emoting, well, over-emote he will. As they used to say back in the day, by any means necessary!

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Graded on a Curve:
Hamell on Trial,
Tackle Box

It’s about time somebody delivered an epic musical slap down of America’s vile bully in chief, Donald Trump. And it’s only proper that that somebody should be Ed Hamell, the outspoken acoustic punk poet/provocateur behind Hamell on Trial. On 2017’s Tackle Box Hamell vents his spleen in a series of visceral rants in which no holds are barred, and he doesn’t limit himself to body slamming Donald Trump; he also takes pointed jabs at our country’s lawless and arrogant cops, its “Ugly American” brand of virulent patriotism and 2nd Amendment gun nuts, and its seemingly inexorable slide into the moral abyss in general.

A collective ugliness in our culture has coalesced around Donald Trump to create the greatest crisis of conscience America has faced since the Civil Rights Movement, and like any person of morals, Hamell refuses to remain silent. No, he’s pissed, and he expresses his outrage in outpourings of dark wit and pure vitriol. He gut punches America’s law enforcement officers—who can get away with almost anything and take full advantage of the fact—in the acoustic hardcore track “Not Aretha’s Respect (Cops),” the moral of which is that cops have done absolutely nothing to demonstrate that they’re the good guys and need to be told this to their face. Except to do so is to risk getting shot, because shooting people is just another little thing cops can do with impunity.

On the restrained and hip hop flavored “The More You Know” Hamell wonders what to tell his son in the face of the election of a man of deplorable character; on the moody and electronica-influenced “Safe” he sings real fast about all the really awful things happening and seems to offer safe harbor, but what safe harbor do any of us really have in the ugly here and now? On the plaintive “Better Believe It” he takes a cold hard look around at all the bad shit going down and concludes, “So the only thing that’s right/Is you with me tonight.” As for the title track, it’s a jittery and caffeine-fueled stream of consciousness meditation on just about everything, including how Hamell has “seen the fall of heroes” and “the rise of clowns.” Me, I dig it for Hamell’s spazzed out guitar playing and the very weird backing vocals.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Edgar Winter Group, They Only Come Out
at Night

Who, I hear you asking, only comes out at night? Why albinos wearing jewel-encrusted tiara necklaces of course, or so it seems judging by the cover of 1972’s wonderful They Only Come Out at Night by The Edgar Winter Group.

The younger of the Winter Brothers, who on his previous LP White Trash established himself as a pink-eyed soul man with some nasty rock’n’roll edges, appeared poised to join 1972’s Glitter Parade on this one. But despite They Only Come Out at Night’s glamtastic cover, it’s anything but a case of cashing in on the worldwide glam bam thank you ma’am craze.

Rather, the pale Texan—with lots of help from Dan Hartman—opted to cover a dizzying variety of stylistic bases on They Only Come Out at Night, and the amazing thing is he pulled it off. A tasty country rocker, a definitive rocker for the ages called “Free Ride,” and one very monstrous instrumental that answers to the name “Frankenstein” on the same album? Sure. And hey, why not throw in some Ted Nugent-school power tool neo-metal and a very limpid but lovely salute to the fall season while we’re at it?

The Edgar Winter Group included some top-notch talent in the form of Rick Derringer, Ronnie Montrose, and the aforementioned Dan Hartman, all of whom would go on to enjoy some modicum of solo success. And They Only Come Out at Night succeeds in large part due to their contributions, especially those of Hartman, who wrote and sang both the great “Free Ride” and “Autumn,” while co-writing five other tracks with Winter. As for Montrose he handled lead guitar duties, while Derringer produced and played various instruments including slide guitar (check out “When It Comes”) and the tasty pedal steel guitar that makes “Round & Round” such a country rock treat.

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Graded on a Curve:
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Anthology: Through
the Years

The recent death of Tom Petty was a seismic event. People were in tears; my girlfriend called to break the sad news and she was, and there’s no other way to say it, heartbroken. I was heartbroken. Death is not a competition or a game, but offhand I can only think of a few other rock’n’rollers whose deaths might be more traumatic for all of us, and they answer to the names Dylan, Springsteen, Jagger, and Richards.

From his eponymous 1976 debut until now Tom Petty (both with and without his backing band the Heartbreakers) produced enough great songs to fill a small jukebox, and their genius lies in their simplicity. Petty was a no-frills hit maker with an unerring ability to set a timeless sentiment to a great hook, and this lack of overweening ambition—Petty was never restlessly experimental or conceptual in the way Pete Townshend or Neil Young can be—often led people to underrate his unique skill set. He was dedicated to the production of great rock songs, not cosmic statements, and in this respect he was just as old school as Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. And he continued to produce great songs for a longer period of time than any of them and almost anybody period, Bruce Springsteen excepted.

Petty was that rarest of rarities, a truly likeable rock star—and I think this is why we all feel so bereft—because he spoke to us from the heart. There was nothing aloof or coldly intellectual or calculating about his music. He was an incurable romantic—sometimes cynical, sure, and sometimes angry, but often tender—and his subject was universal: Love. He knew the heart is a fragile vessel and on most of the songs on 2000’s Anthology: Through the Years—and I’m not just thinking of such well-known tunes as “American Girl” and “Free Fallin’” but also of less-played songs like “The Best of Everything” and the stoical “It’ll All Work Out”—he wore it on his sleeve. Like Roy Orbison, he was a kind of patron saint of the brokenhearted. And no one but Orbison could so effortlessly evoke the pain of love gone wrong.

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Graded on a Curve:
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, (s/t)

Tom Petty scares me. Always has. It’s that skull face of his. I always thought he’d be an even bigger star than he is if his face didn’t look like it should have crossbones underneath it.  Yes, I suspect that Petty’s frightening apparition of a face (although he’s improved it a bit by growing hair on it) has kept him from being acknowledged for what he is: namely, a bona fide power pop genius.

Most people think of Petty as a rock’n’roller or a roots rocker or, ugh, a heartland rocker, but I say he’s a power pop genius and goddamn it, I’m right. And he’d be a power pop genius if the only song he’d ever bequeathed us is the great “American Girl,” which I put at No. 3 on my list of all-time favorite power pop smashes behind The Raspberries’ “Overnight Sensation (Hit Record)” and Big Star’s “September Gurls.” But since 1976 Petty has produced a shitload of brilliant and deceptively simple-sounding songs, from “Here Comes My Girl” to “Free Fallin’” to “I Need to Know” to “Into the Great Wide Open”—and the list goes on and on.

Petty reminds me of Creedence Clearwater Revival, another great singles band that never—in my opinion, at least—got the respect it deserved. And unlike John Fogerty—who has been reduced to producing ilk of the “put me in coach, I’m ready to play” variety—or Eric Carmen for that matter, Petty just keeps pumping them out, like a machine, or an Android from the Planet Skull. The man is a marvel, a human jukebox, and as much as I love The Raspberries and Big Star—more than I’ll ever love Tom Petty, that’s for sure—there’s no denying the guy has produced as many—or more—great tunes than both those bands put together.

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Graded on a Curve:
David Bowie,
“Heroes”

Having emerged more or less psychically shattered from his disastrous sojourn in Los Angeles—where he is said to have subsisted on a diet of cocaine, peppers, and milk—David Bowie took the extraordinary step of relocating himself to West Berlin, that Cold War capital of duplicity, intrigue, and espionage, to escape a galloping case of paranoia. And it was there, having absorbed both the motorik sounds of Krautrock and the ambient explorations of Brian Eno, he produced 1977’s “Heroes,” the only one of his much-touted “Berlin Trilogy” to be wholly recorded in that city.

“Heroes”—which was recorded at Hansa Studio by the Wall a short 500 yards from that deadly monument to the Cold War the Berlin Wall—is art rock at its best, and I’m not just talking about its largely ambient and instrumental B-Side. Bowie didn’t just soak up the sounds of West Berlin, he soaked up its feel, and by so doing bequeathed us an LP that is by turns defiant, taut with menace, and eerily calm. “Heroes” is Bowie the human synthesizer at the top of his game; if any rocker understood T.S. Eliot’s adage that good poets borrow while great poets steal it was the Thin White Duke. But everything he stole he made his own, and this is especially true of the various sonic experiments on “Heroes.”

His ambient exercises, for example, are far more dynamic than those of Eno’s, and I say hooray for that. As for the LPs more traditional cuts, they’re extraordinary. The title track, for example, may be the pinnacle of Bowie’s long and justly celebrated career. Bowie’s vocals, riding atop a mesmerizing but sinuous drone, become increasingly impassioned as the song builds and builds, and the results are utterly enthralling. Nothing else on the LP can top this aching paean to love at the lethal divide between East and West, but Bowie also reaches sublime heights on the driving “Black Out,” with its desperate vocals and great lines, “I just cut and blackout/I’m under Japanese influence and my honor’s at stake!” And then there’s the furious “Joe the Lion,” an odd tribute to the fearless performance artist Chris Burden, who once had himself nailed to his Volkswagon in the name of Kultur. (“Nail me to my car and I’ll tell you who you are.”)

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Graded on a Curve:
Rush,
A Farewell to Kings

Once upon a time, in that purely mythical land called Canada, a power trio called Rush sat down and said, “Let us abandon our blues-based approach to rock, and mold a new reality, closer to the heart. Featuring lots of Renaissance Faire type 12-string guitar shit and long and meandering conceptual songs featuring unnecessarily complex time signatures and lots of cool glockenspiel and dumb fantasy lyrics that will blow 14-year-old minds.”

And true to their word our power-prog triumvirate went on to forge their creativity, and the result was 1977’s A Farewell to Kings, which depending on how you look at things is either one very deep prog-nasty foray into the philosophy of the lamentable Ayn Rand or one of the greatest comedy albums of our time. The great thing about A Farewell to Kings is you can’t lose.

I have an imperfect understanding of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s concept of “perfect duty,” but what I think he was trying to say is that one has an actual moral responsibility to laugh at Rush. They’re trying so hard. Too hard, and that’s the problem. They just can’t help overcomplicating matters. There are some nice bits on their longer songs, and even on the shorter title track, but they get lost in all the other bits and if you’re like me you’re simply not willing to listen to all the other bits just to hear the bits you like. And then there’s the thorny issue of Geddy Lee, who seems to have stolen his vocal chords from some giant swooping and screeching predator bird from Middle Earth. In my case Geddy’s pipes are the equivalent of thumbscrews for the ears, and I’ll be damned if I know how anybody puts up with them.

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  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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