Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
Show No Mercy

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Me, I listen to Slayer. And I don’t even much like Slayer. But they sure as hell beat pausing before coffin warehouses, not that I would know where to find a coffin warehouse even if I wanted to. And that goes double for knocking people’s hats off on the street–a bonehead move like that could get you murdered (or worse!) in this day and age, Besides, I wouldn’t like it if somebody knocked my hat off–I might even break down and cry. And as for going a’whaling you can forget about it–I flunked harpoon in high school and those sperm whales have been known to swallow people whole the way drunks swallow goldfish. I don’t know if that’s worse than being chewed up first, and guess what? I don’t want to find out!

So Slayer it is, and not because I’m into all the cartoon satanism either, although I do find it amusing–I’ll betcha the guys in Slayer wouldn’t know Old Scratch from a two-dollar scratch-off card. And is there really anybody out there who takes pentagrams seriously? They’re like peace symbols for knuckleheads with skateboards.

No, I simply like the way Slayer’s thrash metal dissipate the hypos but fast–if this music (sounds like they force feed their songs amphetamines) doesn’t blow all those damp and drizzly November clouds out of your soul I don’t know what will.

Boy, does Tom Araya sound evil! Like he made a pact with the devil, or worse, David Geffen! And Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King are a couple of real state-of-the-art shredding machines, faster even than the Formax FD 8906B Industrial Conveyor Shredder and Baler, which weighs in a 3,495 pounds, has a processing speed of up 35 fpm and will set you back exactly $53,995.50! Although you still might want to opt for the Formax, because unlike Slayer it won’t guzzle all your booze and fuck your sister!

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Graded on a Curve:
Lou Reed,
Rock n Roll Animal

On which Mr. Lou Reed, poète maudit of Long Island and member of the most influential avant-garde rock’n’roll band to ever sell about a thousand records, picks himself up a couple of guitar whiz Detroit boys best known for playing with Alice Cooper, pushes ‘em on stage at Howard Stein’s Academy of Music in New Yawk City, and proceeds to turn some of his most beloved Loutoons into heavy metal stompers.

1974’s Rock n Roll Animal Reed must have mortified the VU faithful, but it sure won him the big youth audience. When I fell in love with it I didn’t know the Velvet Underground from Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch, and I’ll never forget the day my older brother and I happened upon a copy of 1969: The Velvet Underground Live in the cheap-o bin at the Woolworth’s in Hanover and popped it into the 8-track on the way home. Did we like it? Hell no! We were so plumb disgusted with it we stopped the car, tossed it out the window, and BACKED THE CAR OVER IT!

In so far as populist moves go Rock n Roll Animal reminds me a lot of Dylan and the Band’s Before the Flood, released the same year. Both live LPs performed the same civic function–shot a buncha sacred songs full of steroids in blatant disregard of the tender feelings of the folks who adored the originals so as to bring ‘em to the hoi polloi (like me!). Fuck subtlety and crank up the volume was the recipe, and Robert Christgau’s words about Before the Flood (“I agree a few of [these songs] will never walk again, but I treasure the sacrilege”) apply as well to Rock n Roll Animal.

Me, I always appreciate a big hard rock move, and Lou pulls this one off without even showing any armpit sweat. The album’s built on the boffo twin guitar attack of Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner, who alternately play it pretty (the legendary “Intro” to “Sweet Jane”) or go the heavyweight route (“Sweet Jane” itself). For the most part the band keeps things hammer-to-thumb simple, the exception being the epic version of “Heroin,” on which they aim for majesty (albeit a very twisted sort of majesty) and hit the nail on the noggin.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Clash,
Combat Rock

I just listened to The Clash’s Combat Rock, and my ears have gone MIA! I don’t know whether they crawled into a foxhole to get away from the damn thing only to have the abominable “Rock the Casbah” drop dead smack on ‘em, or flat-out took to their heels screaming “Fuck it! I didn’t sign up for this shit!”

But one thing I do know–when the Village Voice’s Robert Christgau ass-kissingly cited this sonic shitpile as proof positive that The Clash were evolving, he failed to say what they were evolving into–Allen Fucking Ginsberg is my guess.

Now I’ll be the first to admit that my ears are born cowards who have been known to flee at the first sign of a firefight, but then again they’ve stood up to some really savage combat over the years; they bravely endured more than their fair share of ELP albums, after all, and walked away from the Battle of Captain and Tennille with Distinguished Service Crosses.

But Combat Rock? Sheeeit, man, who could blame ‘em for dropping their earbuds and deserting like Private Eddie Slovak? The poor bastards were expecting a punk album! They weren’t expecting to get spattered with horseshit! They walked into the worst ambush since the Battle of Little Big Horn and I don’t blame ‘em for beating a hasty retreat. I ran too, and I’m their fucking commanding officer!

Allow me to just say here that I respect The Clash for occupying the moral high ground during the abysmal Reagan/Thatcher years, and commend them for addressing the plethora of ills that kept all right-minded people on the brink of ethical apoplexy during that benighted time. But when it comes to probing analyses of the pressing issues of the day I’ll take the Minutemen any day, because they never failed to make me jump up and down while they were deploring the sad state of El Salvador.

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Graded on a Curve:
High Voltage

Rock ‘n’ roll primitivists in thrall to electricity and American thighs, these salivating koala shaggers from Oz were the dingoes who REALLY got Meryl Streep’s baby, and maybe your baby (or your mom!) too. Just about everybody I know hates ‘em, thinks their dumb, but I’m a big fan of AC/DC’s brand of Down Under thunder–it’s as close as I’ve ever gotten to being struck by lightning.

Released the year punk exploded, High Voltage (the band’s first international release) may as well have been a punk record; the snot quotient’s high enough. But the Aussie lager louts in AC/DC weren’t play-acting nihilists–all they wanted to do was get rich and get laid while sticking their tongues out (just like Angus on the album cover!) at everything (school, parents, jobs, the Twelve Commandments) that stood in their way.

Accidental electrocution risks like “Live Wire” and “High Voltage” let you know AC/DC has electricity on the brain, but that’s just cuz it takes a whole lotta juice to produce their bare-bones brand of arena-shaking amplification. Nobody’s ever accused AC/DC of subtlety, and that’s one of the things I love most about ‘em. They’re the rock’n’roll equivalent of Mike Tyson, dispensing with all that Muhammed Ali “float like a butterfly” bullshit shit in favor of big one-punch T.K.O.s.

And then there’s Bon Scott, whose premature death (gargling vomit really can be a health hazard) was a bona fide rock tragedy. High Voltage is hardly the best AC/DC LP in terms of songs (with a few exceptions they would go on to write better), or even sonic sturm und drang, but Scott–whose voice is all sandpaper and razor blades–never sounded better.

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Graded on a Curve: Herbie Mann, Push Push; Herb Alpert, Blow Your Own Horn

Good morning class.

I stand before you today to discuss a very important but relatively unexamined musical sub-genre. I’m talking, of course, about shirtless jazz. The “Shirtless Jazz Age” began at the dawn of the 1970s and came to an end in the mid-1980s, and at its peak buried excited record buyers in a virtual avalanche of bared nipples.

Jazz expert Roy Mantooth, author of the definitive shirtless jazz oral history Take It Off! , writes, “Free jazz was out. Free nipples were in. Shirts were for squares and white guys recording on the snobby Windham Hill label. As for the music, who really cared?”

And Mantooth was right. Because shirtless jazz had nothing whatsoever to do with music, and everything to do with posing shirtless on album covers. I’ve never even listened to the LPs in my carefully curated shirtless jazz collection, and I consider myself an expert in the field. Like children, shirtless jazz should be seen, not heard.

Historically, the movement was bookended by two bare-breasted titans. At the vanguard we have the great Herbie Mann, whose pioneering 1971 LP Push Push brought bold, topless improvisation to the Down Beat crowd. As Amiri Baraka noted in 1987’s The Music: Reflections on Jazz and Blues, “Something changed after Push Push hit the record stores. Discarded shirts soon filled the trash cans behind jazz clubs all across America.”

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Graded on a Curve:
The Kinks,
Low Budget

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said there are no second acts in American life. But Ray Davies is English–as distinctively English as the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band and eel pie–and American rules don’t apply. So The Kinks front man and resident genius got his second act and what did we get? The disappointingly crass arena rock to be found on albums like 1979’s Low Budget.

Listening to the bloviating (and very, very obvious) hard rock of Low Budget, it’s hard to believe that Davies was the same guy whose delightfully gentle send-ups of English middle class life were delightful little worlds unto themselves. Davies was the Marcel Proust of England’s village green preservation societies and Waterloo sunsets, of old photo albums and “Do You Remember Walter?” If he wasn’t the last of the steam-powered trains, he was the backwards-looking chronicler of its sad passing.

Listening to Low Budget it’s hard to avoid the obvious–that Davies’ talent had coarsened over the years, and that his once semi-ironical (and so finely observed) satires of English middle class life had set like the Waterloo sun. The early Davies was a Dr. Jekyll, using his scalpel-like wit, whimsy, and nostalgic turn of mind to lovingly satirize England’s always deep class divides.

But at some point he drank a draught of curdling bitterness that boiled off all of the man’s sense of whimsy, satirical subtlety, and attention to the fine detail that made his early work so unique, and was transformed into the Mr. Hyde who dragged the Kinks from arena to arena on the American concert circuit, much to the dismay of old fans but much to the pleasure of younger American audiences, who made Low Budget the Kink’s highest selling American LP (non-compilation division) ever. I used to hear this baby playing just about every day in my dorm in Naugle Hall at Shippensburg College, and I sometimes suspect I got myself tossed out of said dorm just to get away from it.

As H.L. Mencken once said, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.

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Graded on a Curve:
Sweet, Hits

I have had the dubious good fortune of finding myself on board an airplane with the Sweet–twice. And in coach class no less!

On both occasions I was red-eyeing it to Berlin while they were on their way–or so the gone-to-seed rocker shoehorned uncomfortably into the narrow seat next to mine informed me–to play some god-forsaken Glam Festival in the hinterlands of Scandinavia. And he wasn’t an outlier; the whole lot of them were fat, bleary-eyed and looked seriously hungover, and carried with them a demoralizing air of utter defeat. Flying the red-eye econo class to play a nostalgia fest with a bunch of other ready-for-the-knackers-yard has beens (The Glitter Band anybody?) will do that to a person.

‘Tis better to burn out, indeed; these guys struck me as mushrooms sprouting in the fetid soil atop the corpse of the rock’n’roll dream. I found myself wondering if it wouldn’t be better for them if the plane went down, then realized it was too late; their sell-by date had come and gone years before, and even the posthumous glory that accrues to the victims of tragedy would be denied them. Honestly? I wanted to hug them the way you would a kicked dog.

I had to remind myself–and I’m sure it hurt them to remember–that once upon a time the Sweet was a very big deal indeed. The toppermost of the bands on the bubblegum end of the English Glam spectrum during the seventies, Sweet (thanks in very large part to the outrageously fecund songwriting combine that was Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman) first gained prominence with a small handful of chewy chewy pre-teen crowd pleasers along the lines of “Little Willy,” “Wig-Wam Bam,” and “Co-Co,” before aiming for pop immortality with such zany (and very hard rocking) crowd pleasers as “Blockbuster,” “Ballroom Blitz,” and “Fox on the Run.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Sir Lord Baltimore,
Kingdom Come

Recorded in beautiful West Orange and featuring what looks to me like a ghostly Arctic death ship on the cover, Sir Lord Baltimore’s debut LP (1970’s Kingdom Come) is without a doubt the best thing to ever come out of New Jersey. It’s better than the Boss, Bon Jovi, and my ex-wife put together! And it won’t fight you for custody of the dog!

Boasting lots of seriously fucked-up guitar noise and the gold-plated tonsils of lead singer/ drummer/Freak of Nature John Garner, this 1970 monolith deserves its status as one of the pioneering slabs of what would become known as stoner rock.

Imagine an improved (as in freakier, more in-your-face in a Stooges kinda way) Deep Purple. Now imagine a guy whose larynx is capable of incredible feats of strength yet nimble enough to tap dance across the Sahara in its bare feet, which is difficult to visualize I know because your average larynx doesn’t have feet. But that’s the amazing thing about Garner–his larynx does! Two of ‘em in fact! And they wear size 12 shoes!

Why, it’s hard to believe the guy is a Homo sapien in good standing. If a giant bird of prey could sing it would sound either like Geddy Lee or Garner, but I wouldn’t take pot shots with my bb gun at Garner the way I would with Lee (and this despite the fact Geddy’s protected from hunting by law!).

And to make things even better, Garner seems to be channeling the voice of Sir Lancelot or somebody, which definitely ups the LP’s amusement quotient–I’m no scientist, but I posit here for your consideration the theory that Garner is the long-sought missing link between Rick Wakeman’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Iggy and the Stooges’ Raw Power.

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Graded on a Curve:
Alice Cooper,
Billion Dollar Babies

Alice Cooper had the music world’s head in a guillotine in the year of our dark lord 1973; his cartoonishly ghoulish song matter and macabre on-stage shock rock shtick were thrilling to outrage-hungry teengenerates like my older brother, who went to a show on Alice’s Billion Dollar Babies tour in a suit covered with a billion dollars’ worth of stapled-on Monopoly money.

While your more sophisticated tastemakers were deriding poor Alice as so much P.T. Barnum hokum–a low-brow sensationalist who lacked the talent, subtlety and immediacy of such glam era creatures as David and Lou and Iggy–Alice was winning the big American youth vote (“Elected” indeed!) and laughing all the way to the bank.

Who cares if his oh so chic contemporaries dismissed him with a smug wave of the hand? Sneered an offended David Bowie: “I think he’s trying to be outrageous. You can see him, poor dear, with his red eyes sticking out and his temples straining… I find him very demeaning.” Which didn’t stop Lou Reed, for one, from stooping to his own brand of low-rent on-stage theatrics; if shaving Iron Crosses onto your skull and mimicking shooting up on stage isn’t “straining” to be outrageous, what is?

Fact is Billion Dollar Babies isn’t really that different from Diamond Dogs or Berlin (whose producer, Bob Ezrin, also produced this baby). It’s not a concept album, per se, but it has the feel of one–on it Alice grapples with having money tossed at him, threatens to parlay the success of “School’s Out” into an apocalyptic run for higher office which he’s sure to win in a “generation landslide” cuz he’s got the toxic kiddie vote wrapped up, and in general flexes his skinny biceps while singing “God, I feel so strong, I am so strong.”

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Graded on a Curve: Siverhead,
16 and Savaged

Like many another hungry band desperate to make a name for itself in the early seventies, England’s Silverhead jumped aboard the Glam bandwagon with both platform-booted feet, but if you’re expecting fey androgyny and campy signifiers of the Glam demimonde, forget about it–Silverhead was a hard rock outfit that owed its sound to the likes of Humble Pie, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, and the Faces, and there isn’t enough glitter in the whole wide world to disguise the fact.

Silverhead didn’t exactly set the world on fire and only stuck around long enough to release two studio LPs, and nowadays hardly anybody remembers ‘em (sob!), but here’s the thing; they were a pretty damn good raunch’n’roll band, and the evidence to prove it is on their sophomore album, 1973’s 16 and Savaged.

The more I listen to 16 and Savaged the more I realize the whole glam thing is a gloss and overlay, if not an outright red herring; aside from the triumphant “Hello New York,” which is very New York Dolls in spirit, singer/actor (he went on to play a punk rocker in a 1978 episode of WKRP in Cincinati!) Michael Des Barres and the boys can only be termed a glitter rock band in the sense that they looked like a glitter band.

What they sound like to me is a band trapped between rock epochs; the tres catchy ”More Than Your Mouth Can Hold” may anticipate the rude punk attitude of the Dead Boy’s “Caught With the Meat in Your Mouth,” and (looking even further into the old crystal ball) the hair metal sleaze of Poison’s Open Up and Say… Ahh!, but it’s a streamlined boogie number at heart–ain’t nothing glam OR punk about Des Barre’s Rod Stewart meets Steve Marriott rasp.

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Graded on a Curve:
Chelsea Girl

Everybody, or so it seems, loves Teutonic chanteuse Nico’s absolutely enchanting 1967 debut solo album Chelsea Girl–except Nico. In 1981 she said, “I asked for simplicity, and they covered it in flutes! They added strings and–I didn’t like them, but I could live with them. But the flutes! The first time I heard the album, I cried and it was all because of the flute.”

“They” were Velvet Underground producer Tom Wilson and arranger Larry Fallon, and as should be obvious from the above quote they sugar-frosted Chelsea Girl without so much as asking for Nico’s by your live.

Nico may have been crestfallen about Chelsea Girl, but generations of listeners have been bewitched by her hauntingly droning approach to songs by the likes of the young Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin, and (of course) her former Velvet Underground bandmates Lou Reed, John Cale, and Sterling Morrison. These songs are as coldly tender as a Baltic Sea wind blowing through the pines of Spreewald Forest where Nico spent her childhood war years, watching the flickering lights of Allied bombers devastating Berlin on the horizon.

The veddy veddy German Nico (aka Christa Päffgen) is certainly one of the most distinctive vocalists you’ll ever run across; my East German ex-Frau lost her accent within a year or so of leaving the Deutschland, but the ex-model, Warhol actress, and member of his Exploding Plastic Inevitable’s accent remained every bit as thick as the walls of Hitler’s bunker, making her without a doubt the frostiest Ice Queen in the history of modern pop music.

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Graded on a Curve: Freddie Mercury,
Mr. Bad Guy

A Freddie Mercury solo album? Hot damn! I didn’t even know such a creature existed until I watched Bohemian Rhapsody last week. And immediately thought, “Man, that album has just got to be shit! I’d better listen to it right now!”

And guess what? 1985’s Mr. Bad Guy IS shit, and what makes it even worse is the fact that it was two years in the making. That said it’s relatively good-natured shit; if it seems Freddie’s working too hard and getting nowhere throughout, to his credit he has tongue firmly planted in cheek (watch out for that overbite!).

One thing you can’t accuse Mercury of is trying to recreate the Queen sound without Queen; on the other hand, he seems to be slumming. Most of the LP is either your standard flatulent mid-’80s shlock (lots of over the top ballads) or sleazy Eurodisco. Warning to fans of Queen’s rock operatic bombast–there’s not a single rock song on the album. And there’s no opera either!

Just a few electric guitar touches here and there, and (for all you opera fans) the ersatz “Bohemian Rhapsody” substitute that is the title cut, which dispenses with both figaro and magnifico in favor of a symphonic shlock and proceeds to plod, plod, plod. “Mr. Bad Guy” is to “Bohemian Rhapsody” what Alvin Stardust is to Ziggy Stardust. Aside from the amusing lyrics this clunker has nothing to offer the world, and I can hardly believe Freddie expended his vocal chords on it when he could have just soon covered Alice Cooper’s “No More Mr. Nice Guy.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Kiss, Alive!

Kiss: The McDonald’s of Rock! The ultimate mass-produced fast food for your ears! Over 100 million albums served and counting! Hell, they actually kinda LOOK LIKE Ronald McDonald! And their concerts should have drive thru windows!

Which is to say that while other bands may produce better songs, when it comes to dependable lowest-common-denominator rock product, Kiss makes most (if not all) of your other hard rock outfits look like mom and pop burger joints.

But I’m not slagging ‘em. No matter highly evolved your tastebuds may be, don’t you ever get the unshakable hankering to sink your teeth into a Mickey D’s cheeseburger? They’re so wrong they’re right! And it’s just like that with Kiss. I can make fun of the make-up and the dumbed down music (they make Grand Funk sound smart!) but when push comes to shove I can’t resist songs like “Strutter” and “Black Diamond” and “Rock and All Nite” any more than I can a holster of McDonald’s fries. They’re greasy and taste great with salt on ‘em!

And THEE DEFINITIVE Kiss product is of course 1975’s Alive!, which in the great seventies live el pee tradition is a twofer and as such probably one LP too long, but who’s counting? Think of it as a double Happy Meal! As a graduate of the Class of ’76 I couldn’t escape this baby, everybody owned a copy on 8-track and played it nonstop in their cars as they rolled down the main drag of Littlestown, Pennsylvania (which was so small it didn’t EVEN HAVE a McDonald’s) looking for girls WHO DIDN’T EXIST, that is when they weren’t playing Frampton Comes Alive! (which in the great seventies live tradition was a double album as well).

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Graded on a Curve:
The Monkees,
The Best of the Monkees

Today we remember The Monkees’ Peter Tork who passed away yesterday, February 21, with a look back from our archives.Ed.

The kids in my 6th grade class didn’t give a shit about The Beatles; we were Monkees fans through and through. The Beatles, well… The Beatles were for fucking old people, and who gives a shit about old people? We had our own squabbles (Mickey’s No. 1!) and rumor mill (Davy’s dead!) and preferred Dr. Pepper to Sgt. Pepper anyway. My older brother never tired of playing the thing; it was fucking boring! And what did he know anyway? He was, like, 16 and practically dead!

And all these years later I’ll still take the Pre-Fab Four over the Fab Four any day. My heart doesn’t go pitter patter when I hear “Penny Lane,” but it skips a beat every time I hear “Daydream Believer” or “Valleri.” What do I care if The Monkees were the product of big Hollywood and that boring homunculus Don Kirshner? The truth is I kinda like Don Kirshner; his impossibly monotone and utterly banal introductions of bands on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert bordered on Andy Kaufman-school performance art, and provided me with some of my biggest laffs during the seventies.

Sure, the Monkees were created in a test tube in a laboratory by the suspiciously named Raybert Productions, and sure they were hardly allowed to play their own instruments on their own albums (hell, for a long time they couldn’t play ‘em!), but when push comes to shove it’s all about the songs, man, which now that I think of it were outsourced to the likes of Boyce and Hart and Neil Diamond and Goffin and King, but who cares? The kids in my 6th grade class knew something our boring elders/Beatles’ fans didn’t know; namely, that The Monkees were communicating with us DIRECTLY through the televisions in our living rooms, and the televisions in our living rooms were omnipotent!

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Graded on a Curve:
Deer Tick,
Divine Providence

Hey, how about we forget about this stupid review and go get trashed instead? Yeah, yeah, yeah, drinking to excess is bad for your moral fiber and could even land you in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous or in an El Camino wrapped around a utility pole (like me!), but sometimes you just gotta go off like a human roman candle or die a little inside, ya know?

And it’s this wild hair up yr ass, this impulse to just go off the rails and to hell with the consequences, this itch that you just GOTTA scratch that Deer Tick captures so wonderfully on 2011’s divinely raucous Divine Providence. The LP title’s a salute to the band’s Rhode Island hometown; the contents therein include some of the most barbaric yawps and calls to get shitfaced this side of Gang Green’s “Alcohol” or the Dictators’ damn near definitive “Weekend.”

Divine Providence is by no means a perfect album; the first four songs are drop dead great, near perfect actually, but after that it’s hit or miss if only because the party mostly peters out and Deer Tick is reduced to pure songcraft, the problem with that being that a couple of these songs sound suspiciously like songs by other bands.

Deer Tick’s owe a heavy debt to the Replacements, and on “Main Street” they don’t even try to hide it. And I can’t listen to “Chevy Express” (what a waste of a great title!) without hearing Spoon. Meanwhile, “Make Believe” is a bizarro homage (or should I make that wholesale swipe?) of Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane,” right down to its human cannonball guitar riff and opening lines (compare “I saw you dancing through the window” to “Once I thought I saw you/In a crowded hazy bar/Dancing on the light/From star to star”), with a touch of Spoon tossed in for flavoring.

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