Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve: Funkadelic,
Free Your Mind… and Your Ass Will Follow

Funkadelic—and Parliament as well, naturally—were America’s go-to bands for psychedelic funk at the dawn of the Seventies; their acid-fried, groove-based jams came complete with fries, shake, and a generous helping of raunchy high humor, and you would practically have to be a member of the KKK to deny them. Theirs wasn’t just the sound of Black Liberation, it was the sound of Human Liberation, because as George Clinton understood only all too well, we all need to free our asses.

If 1970’s Free Your Ass… And Your Mind Will Follow isn’t my favorite Funkadelic album it’s not for lack of good old-fashioned genius. It’s just a mite uneven. Side One’s as great a one-two punch as you’re ever likely to bump your ass against. Side Two, with the notable exception of the brilliant “Funky Dollar Bill,” not so much. That said, this six-song LP—weaker second side and all—still constitutes an essential addition to any sentient life form’s home musical library. Believe me when I say the people on Venus (they prefer to be called people; “alien” is considered a racial slur) will want to purchase this album if they haven’t already. People from Venus are in need of some ass freeing too.

Robert Christgau once said of this baby, “Not only is the shit weird, the weirdness signifies,” and to that I can only add “Amen.” Opener “Free Your Ass and Your Mind Will Follow” is a 10-minute freak-out over which the brilliant Eddie Hazel plays blistering guitar of the sort that will make you forget all about Jimi Hendrix. He’s joined by a madcap chorus of vocalists (I count eight in the band’s lineup) repeating slogans (“Free your mind!”, “The kingdom of heaven is within!”, “Open up your funky mind and you can fly”), uttering paradoxes (“Freedom is free of the need to be free”), and generally getting all hotted up. It also boasts great bass by Billy Nelson and some very fuzzy organ by his magnificentness Bernie Worrell, and may well constitute the coolest dime bag of music you’ll ever snort up your ears.

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Graded on a Curve: Jonathan Richman,
I, Jonathan

With 1976’s The Modern Lovers Jonathan Richman bequeathed us one of the greatest rock’n’roll albums ever. Then he had a change of heart. “I believe that any group that hurts the ears of infants sucks,” he said, giving up VU-school riffs and proto-punk sonic thrust in favor of wide-eyed songs of innocence for kiddies of all ages that couldn’t hurt the ears of crickets, much less babies.

Artists evolve; it’s the nature of art. But does anybody out there find Richman’s aggressive optimism as depressing as I do? And am I the only one who thinks Richman’s affected loony toons for naïfs and bohos make him the Pee Wee Herman of rock?

On The Modern Lovers Richman historically situated himself in the here and now, the here being the Boston suburbs and the now being the dawn of the seventies, a time in which he found himself both in (he was in NYC to catch the Velvet Underground in their glory) and out (drugs? Our boy was the original straightedge kid) of place. On 1992’s I, Jonathan he is in full retreat to the 1960s, both spiritually and sonically, which is to say that it’s not just the song forms on I, Jonathan that have been largely ransacked from rock’s distant musical past.

Richman has always been a romantic, and it’s due to this that even such quintessentially contemporary Modern Lovers cuts as “Roadrunner” carry with them what I can only call a nostalgia for the Now. I, Jonathan is the work of a man ruled by the more conventional form of nostalgia; for the most part he’s looking backwards and romanticizing the past. Ray Davies could pull of this sort of thing because he was anything but a naïf, and always undercut his nostalgia with a knowing wink that told you he fully understood that the past wasn’t as great as everybody makes it out to be. Richman never winks because he’s a true believer, and “knowing” simply isn’t a word in his vocabulary.

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Graded on a Curve:
Meat Puppets,
Up on the Sun

Spacy lockstep psychedelic folk-punk with a spring in its step: That’s the best I can do to summon up the bouncy and utterly ebullient music on Meat Puppets’ 1985 Meisterwerk Up on the Sun. Up on the Sun constituted the last of a three LP onslaught that marked one of the most astonishing evolutions in musical history—the Puppets went from mealy-mouthed hardcore slash and burn to weirded-up, slowed-down country murk to this acid-drenched, desert-fried classic, which I consider to be one of the most singular landmarks on America’s postpunk landscape.

Arizona son Curt Kirkwood delivers up his patented brand of liquid sunshine mysticism in a deadpan drone, which is to say he’s got nothing to lose and nothing to prove and doesn’t give a damn if he ain’t the second coming of Mel Torme. He tosses off non sequiturs (“A long time ago/I turned to myself/And said, You, you are my daughter”), turns banalities into profundities (“Pistachios turn your fingers red”), and engages in much surrealistic word spew (“Hot pink volcano in the heart of the tornado, is shaking the lemonade tree/Hot pink forest is backed by a furnace, that boils the lemonade free”). But no matter how far out his lyrics are they’re still firmly set in the Arizona desert, with the sun baking the mesa and the local “Swimming Ground” providing the only escape from the hot pink heat for miles. Kirkwood may have been a mystic, but he was a mystic with both feet planted solidly on the earth.

Curt Kirkwood, brother Cris (bass), and Derrick Bostrom (drums) go all syncopated on this one, but somehow manage to keep things loose. You could almost call Up on the Sun funky but it’s not like any funk you’ve ever heard before; the songs are simultaneously groove-locked and ramshackle, and the tension between structure and tossed-off loosey-goosey chaos is what keeps you on the edge of your seat. In a strange way—and I’ve never noticed this until now—Up on the Sun could be a deranged country cousin to the early LPs of the Talking Heads, sans the claustrophobia and rampant paranoia (our boys are on a good trip and couldn’t be happier). Both bands serve up a very deviant form of dance music, if only for spastics, meth heads, and the like.

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Graded on a Curve:
Wham!,
Make It Big

When it comes to ersatz pop soul it doesn’t get any more authentically faux than 1984’s Make It Big by Wham!. England’s glorious It duo successfully transmogrified their transparent lack of authenticity into an asset, and while they never managed to reach the awe-inspiring pop heights of Hall and Oates, they were really quite alike insofar as one guy did all the heavy lifting while the other guy did, well, who knows what he did. Hand the guy doing all the heavy lifting the occasional Kleenex maybe.

As Hall once said of Oates, “I’m 90 percent and he’s 10 percent, and that’s the way it is.” The only difference is that John Oates’ 10 percent beat Andrew Ridgeley’s 2 percent hands down, even if that 10 percent was contributed not by Oates but by Oates’ mustache. Oh, and there’s another difference: John Oates hasn’t been relegated to the status of a trivia question.

But enough with the relegation of duties stuff. The point I want to make is that thanks to George Michael, Wham! were so shallow they were deep, which is demonstrated by the fact that Michael went on to become a pop superstar who could make ‘em swoon by doing nothing more than wiggling his butt. But it takes more than supernatural keister gyration to make it in the cutthroat Pop Biz. You have to be able to write songs that are so infectious the CDC has to be sent in to investigate them, and Michael had a gift for writing songs that epidemiologists spent a lot of time peering at through microscopes. Mock him and Wham! if you will—I’ve been doing it for ages—but the fact remains that Michael had mad pop skills.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Who, It’s Hard

I’ve been walking around for years telling anybody who will listen that the Who died with Keith Moon, but I’ve never been certain it’s true. Sure, The Who lost its heart and soul when Moonie departed this mortal coil on 7 September 1978, but Pete Townshend is Pete Townshend and Pete Townshend didn’t stop being Pete Townshend the day Keith Moon passed away.

Or so I could only surmise, because the unvarnished truth is I’ve never listened to a post-Who LP in its entirety until now. Always struck me as an insult to Keith’s memory somehow. But hey, better late than never, and what I’m now prepared to say after sitting down to 1982’s It’s Hard is that I was right. The post-Moon Who isn’t a very good Who, and I think Moon’s absence has a lot to do with it.

A pitiful few of the songs on It’s Hard are winners. But more of them are flat-out duds, while a few others are semi-salvageable thanks only to the fact that even without Moon the Who remained a formidable recording unit. It’s Hard got a good keelhauling from many critics, many of whom were dyed-in-the-wool Who fans crestfallen—if not angry—at the album’s relative lack of merit.

And there’s lots to not like. The pompous “I’ve Known No War” is an overwrought anthem that fails to be anthemic and nearly ruins “Won’t Get Fooled Again” for me forever; it’s the sound of Pete Townshend waving the white flag. “Cry if You Want” is proof positive that the Who were never the same after Moon died; Kenny Jones’ martial tattoo simply ain’t up to the task, and it doesn’t help that the song is, well, boring man.

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Graded on a Curve:
Peter Frampton,
Frampton Comes Alive!

I’ve spent decades trying to fathom the pull Frampton Comes Alive! had on me when it came out during my senior year in high school back in 1976. It couldn’t have been Frampton’s pureed baby food take on hard rock, or the songs that went on forever, or Frampton’s “talking guitar,” or those ubiquitous pop touchstones “Show Me the Way” and “Baby, I Love Your Way” even.

No, I’ve been searching my soul for years, and I’ve finally figured it out: Peter Frampton was the hottest babe I’d ever laid eyes on. Just check out the album’s cover. Frampton is a bigger turn on than seventies’ sex symbol Farrah Fawcett, God rest her soul, and I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I didn’t want to listen to the Framp so much as lose my virginity to him. And I don’t think I was alone. I suspect a very large swath of America’s hormonal teen nerds longed to bed Peter Frampton, cock and all. And he made the girls scream as well, which certainly helps to explain his otherwise uncanny rise to superduperstardom.

And that’s really all I have to say about Frampton Comes Alive! I doubt many of my acned cohort still listen to it; I certainly don’t know anybody who does. That said, an album came with the swoon-worthy cover, and like most album that album has songs on it. So I feel obligated to say a few brief superfluous words on those really rather superfluous songs.

The first word that comes to mind, when taking the album as a whole, is limp. Not limpid, mind you, but limp. There’s a difference. Frampton may have emerged from Steve Marriott’s very very ‘eavy Humble Pie, but he was always the squishy side of the HP equation, and it shows on his take of Humble Pie’s “Shine On” as well as on his menace-free cover of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” True, the latter has more stones than anything else on Frampton Comes Alive! besides “(I’ll Give You) Money,” on which Peter demonstrates that he has chops. But “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” is overly polite at best, and hardly designed to put a scare in your granny.

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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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  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


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