Author Archives: Michael H. Little

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.”)

Read More »

Posted in The TVD Storefront | Leave a comment

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.

Read More »

Posted in The TVD Storefront | Leave a comment

Graded on a Curve:
Kenny Loggins, Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: The Greatest Hits of Kenny Loggins

Why is it I can’t think of a single witty thing to say about Kenny Loggins? I had to think for a while before the answer came to me, and the answer is this—Kenny Loggins is no laughing matter. Kenny Loggins is the worst thing that can happen to your ears this side of cholesteatoma.

Here we thought we’d left him behind in the seventies, a spent force. But he rose from his ashes like a bad soft rock taco—please excuse the terrible simile, but I’m upset here—and having once ear-fucked us with such infamous tunes as “House at Pooh Corner” and “A Love Song” he turned around and ear-fucked us all over again. A great man once said there are no second acts in American life. One can only wish this were true.

How did Loggins pull it off? Simple. He abandoned his mushy Mr. Pooh persona and reinvented himself as a performer of such jump and jive movie soundtrack staples as “Footloose,” “Danger Zone,” and “I’m Alright (Theme From Caddyshack).” And presto! America’s No. 1 Vapid Soft Rock Annoyance was back on top, and this time around you could dance to him! Toss in such unforgivably catchy AOR hits as “Whenever I Call You “Friend”” (thanks for nothing, Stevie Nicks!) and “Don’t Fight It” (damn you Steve Perry!) and suddenly there was no avoiding him.

Read More »

Posted in The TVD Storefront | 1 Comment

Graded on a Curve: Painkiller,
Guts of a Virgin

How best to describe Painkiller’s Guts of a Virgin? The perfect gift for a deaf friend? Total and utter ear obliteration? Torture music for twisted death dwarves? The sound your head might make imploding?

None of them quite gets to the essence of this brutalizing and deranged melding of atonal jazz skronk and remorseless death metal grind, which is brought to us by avant-garde alto saxophonist and man about New York City John Zorn, bassist extraordinaire Bill Laswell, and one-time Napalm Death drummer Mick Harris. The ever-adventurous Zorn founded Painkiller in 1991, impressed by the intensity of grindcore, and on that same year’s Guts of a Virgin the trio set out to produce music that is every bit as challenging (and off-putting to normally adjusted human ears) as free jazz at its most uncompromising.

The formula is simple; Zorn screeches and squonks atop the churning and ugly din produced by Laswell and Harris, and the overall effect reminds of Minneapolis noise rock heroes Cows cranked up about a thousand notches. This is some menacing, in your face shit, and the occasional blood-curdling screams don’t help. Like the ones that pepper the astounding “Scud Attack,” for instance. Talk about your music for the end of the world; I’m sure there are people out there who’d sooner face a real Scud attack than listen to this baby.

Me, I love it because I love noise, just as I love the way “Damage to the Mask” suddenly lurches from its snazzy drum opening to become a galloping squeal-fest. The title track is a brief foray into shrieking free jazz, but with a bigger, badder bottom, and both it and 11-second follow-up “HanDjob” feature a demented set of tonsils that totally remind me of Cows Shannon Selberg, who would have made the perfect frontman for this band.

Read More »

Posted in The TVD Storefront | Leave a comment

Graded on a Curve:
Helen Reddy,
Helen Reddy’s Greatest Hits (And More)

Friends, Romans, Vinyl District readers; I come to praise Helen Reddy, not to bury her in the insulting verbiage many use to unfairly deride her formidable talents. Many have nothing but snide things to say about her, but I do not count myself amongst them; her multitude of AM radio hits—they didn’t call Reddy the “Queen of ‘70s Pop” for nothing—brought me too much happiness in my youth, from the altogether uncanny “Angie Baby” to her landmark feminist anthem “I Am Woman.”

Australia’s Helen Maxine Lamond Reddy has been unfairly consigned to the easy-listening dustbin of history. There’s no denying Reddy generally stuck to the middle of the road. But to steal a phrase from Dylan Thomas, she sang in her chains like the sea. And a careful look at her discography reveals she brought a host of weirdly subversive bunch of songs to the party while she was at it. Lucky for us, they’re all to be found on 1990’s Helen Reddy’s Greatest Hits (And More).

Why buy this comp and not another? I’m glad you asked. First, it includes the funky electric piano-dominated version of “Angie Baby” I grew up listening to on the radio, and not the alternative version to be found on her other best of packages. Second, it includes the dance-floor friendly “I Can’t Hear You No More,” which you won’t find on most of her greatest hits albums. And the same goes for “Happy Girls,” her moving lament to “the lonely girls of the world.”

“Happy Girls” joins a triumvirate of empathetic portraits of woman who are, depending on your point of view, either mad or society’s outcasts. The countrified and gospel-inflected “Delta Dawn” tells the story of a Brownsville woman who wanders the streets wearing “a faded rose from days gone by” looking for a “mysterious brown-haired man” who is going to take her to his “mansion in the sky.” The touched protagonist of the funky and horn-fueled “Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress)” also wanders the town, talking to herself and telling everybody who approaches her to, well, leave her alone.

Read More »

Posted in The TVD Storefront | Leave a comment

Graded on a Curve:
The Jam,
Sound Affects

I missed most of England’s post-punk music—was too busy doing my taxes or drugs or something—and what I did hear (New Order, er, New Order) simply confirmed me in my mad conviction that I wasn’t missing much. What can I say? As a great man once said, Youth is wasted on the young.

The Jam are one of the many bands I snubbed back in the day. Why? Because I heard “Town Called Malice” exactly once and thought it was bouncy pop tripe, that’s why. It’s a piss-poor reason to write off a great band, but that’s the way I am. I was in an ugly mood back then and I needed ugly music to put me in the proper ugly frame of mind to think ugly thoughts about all the ugly things in the world. It was an ugly time.

The sad thing is I missed a lot of excellent music. The good thing is I’m getting a second chance to catch up, and what better way to catch up than by basking in the brilliant pop glow of 1980’s tres smart and musically adventurous Sound Affects?

I used to smirk when people called Paul Weller a genius. Mark E. Smith—now there’s a genius, I would say to myself. And I will always prefer Smith to Weller, if only because I prefer off-kilter rock cranks with odd ideas on how to build songs to pop savants, Elton John and Eric Carmen excepted. But Weller is a Wunderkind no matter how you cut the liverwurst, and on the Jam’s fifth studio LP he outdoes himself.

Read More »

Posted in The TVD Storefront | Leave a comment

Graded on a Curve:
Les Baxter,
Skins! Bongo Party
with Les Baxter

Bongo-curious? Oh, come on. You know you are. We all are, deep down. So go ahead, take a walk on the wild side with Les Baxter’s 1957 bongo opus Skins! Bongo Party with Les Baxter.

One album. One man. One set of bongos. What could be more exciting than that? Well, an all-cowbell LP would be more exciting than that, but make no mistake; Les Baxter—the musician and arranger who from the 1950s to the late 1990s produced a massive discography of relatively queasy-making easy-listening world music that he called exotica—has come up with the next best thing.

I’m joshing, of course. Does anybody out there really want to listen to an entire album of bongo solos? It’s like my pal Steve Renfro, who is paraphrasing Allen Ginsberg, says: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by bongos, starving hysterical naked… “ I don’t know about you, but when I hear a bongo solo coming, I run for the hills.

But I’ll be damned if Baxter doesn’t almost pull it off. Ninety-nine percent of the Muzak Maestro’s output may be treacle—I’ve just been listening to 1958’s Space Escapade (saccharine intergalactic laid back!) and 1951’s Ritual of the Savage (the natives are restfully orchestral tonight!) and frankly, my ears hate me. But on Skins! Baxter eschews schmaltz for at least a semblance of Afro-Cuban jazz authenticity, and if the album ultimately fails to satisfy it has less to do with Baxter’s propensity for populist pablum than the limitations inherit in producing a record revolving around a percussion instrument with limited musical and emotional range.

Read More »

Posted in The TVD Storefront | Leave a comment

Graded on a Curve: Various Artists,
The Best Northern Soul All-Nighter… Ever!

England’s Northern Soul movement—which exploded at about the same time the Mod Scene was waning—was based on an odd but simple aesthetic: Let’s all go to one of the many soul clubs to be found in the Midlands and the North of England (Wigan Casino, Manchester’s Twisted Wheel, or the Golden Torch in Turnstall, to name a few) to take lots of amphetamines and dance all night to the sounds of obscure American soul records—the more obscure the better.

The scene boasted a set of rules every bit as codified as those of Mod, and inherited Mod’s fashion sense and affection for leapers. But Northern Soul was far more America-looking. And Northern Soul’s identification with black American culture (although plenty of white artists made the soul cut too) went beyond the musical to the political; it was no accident that the economically downtrodden youth of depressed Northern England adopted the clenched fist of the Black Power salute as a symbol to be found on many of the patches worn with pride by the attendees at all-nighters from The Twisted Wheel—which was ultimately shuttered after being declared a drug haven—to the Catacombs in lovely Wolverhampton.

But what made Northern Soul a true record geek’s Mecca was its emphasis on seeking out and popularizing (for the larger part) rare mid-1960s 45s by relatively little known American soul artists recording on small regional labels such as Detroit’s Ric-Tic Records. Its adherents’ fanatical quest for the obscure bordered on mania. Have you heard The Fascinations’ cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Girls Are Out to Get You”? You haven’t? Well I just bought it at Dave Godin’s record shop in Covent Garden! Let’s dash off to my house and spin it!

Read More »

Posted in The TVD Storefront | Leave a comment

Graded on a Curve:
The Clash, (S/T)

Why is it that I love The Sex Pistols but am completely indifferent to The Clash? Because I prefer cartoon nihilism to phony protest, that’s why. It’s much funnier. And then there’s The Clash’s wholehearted embrace, come 1979’s London Calling, of a mélange of musical styles by no means limited to reggae, ska, rockabilly, and (gak!) lounge jazz. Seems the entire world rejoiced at The Clash’s eclecticism. Well, the world will have to get along without me.

But that doesn’t explain my take or leave it attitude to their eponymous 1977 debut. It’s not just a straight-up punk album, more or less—it’s THEE GREATEST PUNK LP EVER so far as plenty of people are concerned. Why, The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau went so far as to declare the U.K. version of The Clash “the greatest rock and roll album ever manufactured anywhere.” I shit you not! So the problem must be in my head, not in the grooves! I’m obviously a mental defective!

But I’ll damned if this alcoholic wet brain will go down without a fight. I can think of a few reasons why The Clash leaves me cold. First, they don’t make me laugh. This is important. The Sex Pistols cracked me up with their “nod’s as good as a wink to a blind horse” brand of ersatz anarchy, and every other punk band I’ve ever loved since has tickled my funny bone in one way or another. The Clash don’t make me laugh. They come close on the admittedly great “White Riot” (why shouldn’t we white folks have a riot of our own? Everybody else is doing it!) and on “London Burning,” which comes at you like a declaration of martial law only to let you know that what London’s really burning with is boredom. I love the band’s love for traffic lights. Too many rock’n’rollers run traffic lights instead of simply admiring them.

Read More »

Posted in The TVD Storefront | 1 Comment

Graded on a Curve:
Mick Jagger,
The Very Best of
Mick Jagger

“I’m feeling as dumb/As a Mick Jagger solo album/I’m such a damned waste/One long lapse of good taste”Lesbian Boy, “Mick Jagger Solo Album”

What do you give the person who has everything? Well, let’s see… of course! Something they don’t want! And who in their right mind actually wants a Mick Jagger solo album? But let me correct that. There really are people out there who want Mick Jagger solo albums—1985’s She’s the Boss went platinum in the U.S., God help us—but for the life of me I can’t figure out WHY they want them; are they, like, you know, PERVERTS or sumpin’?

Don’t get me wrong; it’s not as if 2007’s The Very Best of Mick Jagger is totally unlistenable, although it has more than its fair share of unlistenable moments—it simply strikes me as, well, pointless. If, like me (and this is a big assumption, granted) you believe that the Stones might as well have packed their bags and flown off into permanent tax exile at some indeterminate point in the mid to late seventies, and if like me you believe that everything they’ve done since then has basically been so much superfluous sand pounding, then what could be more supererogatory than a handful of relatively nondescript albums by their too-famous for words frontman, who has (in my view) done nothing but preen like a peacock since (and I’m being exceptionally kind here) 1978’s Some Girls?

I know—I’m being a prick. Because there’s no arguing that The Very Best of Mick Jagger includes a few tunes I’m glad to have around. I must confess to loving the pretty but gritty “Don’t Tear Me Up” for instance. And who doesn’t love the menacing Ry Cooder slide guitar rave-up “Memo From Turner,” even if it does date back to 1970 and the Performance soundtrack and really doesn’t belong on what is, for the most part, a culling of the “finest” tracks from Jagger’s solo outings from 1985 to 2001? (Another version of the tune appears on 1975 Rolling Stones’ compilation Metamorphosis. Avoid it.) As for the countrified love song “Evening Gown” it’s sweet and sad, while the on-the-lowdown blues turn “Checkin’ Up on My Baby”—which Jagger recorded in 1992 with The Red Devils, and which doesn’t appear on a solo album either—demonstrates that old Mick stills know how to shake, rattle, and roll, although why he doesn’t do it more often beyond me.

Read More »

Posted in The TVD Storefront | 1 Comment
  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text
  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text