Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
Black Flag,
Slip It In

I’m no fan of Henry Rollins, and I don’t say that because he once threatened to sock me in the kisser. I consider being threatened by big bad Henry a badge of honor. No, I don’t like him because he’s the straightedge stinkbug who single-fistedly transformed one of punk’s funniest bands into a sullen bummer. His patented combination of testosterone and angst leached every last ounce of hardy har har out of the band that brought us “TV Party” and “Six Pack,” and frankly if I hadn’t had the crack-ups in the Angry Samoans to fall back on I might have croaked from sheer cackle deprivation.

But the decision to transform Black Flag from the most explosive hardcore band in the known world into Black Sabbath Mark II was guitarist/songwriter/band leader Greg Ginn’s, and it’s Ginn who is chiefly to blame for the sludgefest that is 1984’s Slip It In. Going from playing ‘em fast and hard to cranking out dinosaur ‘eavy riffs may have satisfied some atavistic need of Ginn’s, but by abandoning himself to the impulse he largely sacrificed the blowtorch intensity that made such songs as “Police Story” and “Nervous Breakdown” so breathtakingly awesome.

Slip It In has its moments, and some of its songs are keepers, but as the almost unlistenable grind to nowhere that is “Rat’s Eyes” proves, aping Black Sabbath can be just as disastrous a move as aping the Doobie Brothers if you lack the good sense to realize that even at their heaviest Black Sabb’s songs actually go somewhere. And Rollins’ “lyrics” don’t help; popular music has rarely gone lower than Rollins’ invitation to touch his “filth.” I think I’ll pass, thank you very much. And the same awful fate would have befallen “Obliteration” had Ginn not seen fit to slather liberal amounts of his deranged guitar skronk all over it.

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Graded on a Curve:
Boz Scaggs,
Silk Degrees

It took seven albums, but blue-eyed soul man Boz Scaggs hit pop paydirt with 1976’s Silk Degrees. If you were alive and had ears during America’s Bicentennial Year you’ll remember the Boz was every bit as hard to avoid as Fleetwood Mac.

But why would you want to avoid him? Silk Degrees is a small landmark in music making, and what’s all the more remarkable is that nobody saw it coming. Scaggs was a journeyman with a long pedigree dating back to the mid-sixties and stints with the Other Side, the Steve Miller Band, and Mother Earth, and his solo career wasn’t exactly the stuff of which legends are made—his highest charting solo LP before Silk Degrees coughed and died at #81 on the Billboard Charts, and it was a smash hit compared to the five that came before it. I doubt many industry folks were betting their Andrew Gold royalty checks on Scaggs delivering an LP that would go five times platinum.

But after much tinkering with the formula Scaggs finally got it right on Silk Degrees, which veers from Little Feat-school boogie to deep-dish soul to pseudo-disco to lithesome funk without breaking a sweat or seeming to overreach. Boz does it all on this one, and while I prefer the upbeat material to the pair of ballads, he (mostly) pulls them off as well. I don’t know what he was snorting at the two studios in Hollywood where this baby was recorded, but he somehow managed to utilize El Lay studio talent—including three of the members of benighted Toto—to produce an LP that doesn’t sound like yet another example of sterile El Lay studio product.

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Graded on a Curve:
J. Geils Band,
“Live” Full House

A few words on the evolution of this review: I originally intended to write about 1977’s Foghat Live because I consider it the best live album this side of Jerry Lee Lewis’ 1964 Live at the Star Club, Hamburg, which I love even more than Roxy Music’s 1976 Viva! Roxy Music, which is guaranteed to make your ears clasp their tiny little hands and say, “Glam bam thank you ma’am!”

But then my friend Hank Dittmar who has forgotten more about music than I’ll ever know recommended this 1972 live album by the J. Geils Band, whom I saw at Shippensburg College in the late seventies but can’t really remember seeing at Shippensburg College in the late seventies because I was totally blotto on a combination of Wild Turkey and Placidyl, the latter of which I can only describe as an industrial strength memory dissolvent.

So I decided to review “Live Full House and let me tell you I’m glad I did. It ain’t Jerry Lee Lewis and it ain’t Roxy Music but man do the J. Geils Band cook. They mainly stick to the rock and R&B basics but they infuse what are of course a couple of formulas as old as the hills with so much passion you’ll find yourself jumping up and down and screaming along with Peter Wolf who can really shout ‘em out for a white boy. And when he’s not busy emoting, Magic Dick who is my second favorite Dick in rock’n’roll behind Handsome Dick Manitoba, is busy honkadonkin’ up a storm on the old harpoon. Just check out his set piece “Whammer Jammer” if you don’t believe me.

One of the things that make this such a great live LP is the fact that the J. Geils Band keep the songs short instead of dragging ‘em out forever like so many other bands were doing at the turn of the decade. Even the one on which Wolf talks to the audience clocks in at well under 5 minutes, and that’s got to be some kind of record for the time. Steve Marriott, God bless him, wouldn’t have shut up for a good long quarter of professional football. I would love to say the band never lets up or lets things go slack but more or less keeps things jumping at a fever pitch except they kinda do on their otherwise mean as a snake cover of John Lee Hooker’s “Serves You Right to Suffer.” And they do it again on the only original on the LP, “Hard Drivin’ Man.”

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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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  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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