Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
Neil Diamond,
Hot August Night

So my physicist buddy Stoner Doug finally managed to construct an actual time machine and was like, “Where should we go?” And we looked at each other and without even having to think about it shouted in perfect sync, “Hot August Night!” Because who wouldn’t have wanted to be at The Greek Theater on that historic August night in 1972 when Neil “Beautiful Noise” Diamond put it all out there in an orgiastic celebration of cosmic shlock?

Forget Elvis! Forget Chuck Berry! Forget Jesus Christ! This was NEIL at his Forever in Blue Jeans best, giving it his all! The Greatest Concert Ever! You don’t hear about it much because the story got suppressed by Neil’s record label, but 15 people died on that sultry August night! Steamed to death by sheer joy!

And Doug and I wanted to be two of them. So we climbed into his primitive time capsule made out of aluminum siding and flattened Dr. Pepper cans with a big sign on a stick reading “We LOVE you Neil!” And following a dramatic WHOOSH and the shriek of the time machine’s 350 Small Block Chevy engine there we were, sitting in Row Three beside a 50-year-old woman from Reno who told us she owned 13 cats all of whom were named Neil (if male) or Diamond (if female).

And there he was! Neil in the flesh! Just like on the cover of Hot August Night on which he appears to be jerking himself off! And why not? If anybody has the right to stroke his shtupper in front of an audience of thousands it’s Neil, who is THE songwriter of our time! The Brill Building savant who came up with such master strokes of pop brilliance as “Cherry, Cherry,” “Sweet Caroline,” and “Song Sung Blue”! To say nothing of the deep philosophical meditation that is “I Am, I Said,” in which an existentially alone Neil complains that nobody will listen to him, not even his chair!

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Graded on a Curve:
Beastie Boys,
Licensed to Ill

Well here it is: the album that changed everything–for the better! The fiery shot of hip hop fired across the bow of rock’n’roll that succeeded (spectacularly!) by swiping its most monstrous riffs from rock’n’roll itself, and its brash, crass, and hilarious attitude from punk.

As I remember it, 1988’s Licensed to Ill did the impossible by converting predominantly white hardcore punks and rockers to an almost exclusively black musical genre (hip hop) OVERNIGHT. I recall attending a party being thrown by a couple of Johnny Thunders wannabes at a roach-infested crash pad in Philly, and lo and behold all every sneering personality crisis in attendance wanted to do was jump joyously around to Licensed to Ill until the morning hours.

Do you think it’s easy to instantaneously win hearts and minds? To turn cynical hive-minded hardcore kids (just like the Beasties when they started out) into the kinds of responsible world citizens who immediately rushed out to buy Public Enemy’s black-consciousness-expanding It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back after a single playing of “No Sleep till Brooklyn”? Licensed to Ill was the boldest blow for race mixing this side of P-Funk. Or Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka even. Or Public Enemy for that matter. True, even the most cursory glance at Kid Rock should be enough to tell you this remarkable phenomenon had its downside (God Save Us From Vanilla Ice!) but STILL.

But Licensed to Ill was more than just a remarkable blow for instant integration. The Beastie Boys muscled their way to the front of the bus on the basis of sheer bravado and a snotty sense of New Yawk humor not heard since the Dictators released the great Go Girl Crazy! Mike D., MCA, and Ad-Rock were that crazy kid down the block who lived to get high, liked to egg cop cars, and had that insane stash of Hustler magazines. And who thought everything was funny; hell, he even laughed while he was PUKING.

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Graded on a Curve: Stephen Stills,
Stephen Stills

Stephen Stills was one of the first rockers to be labelled a “superstar” on the basis of his stints in Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and in 1970 he got his chance to live up to the title with his 1970 solo debut Stephen Stills.

Superstar my ass.

Stephen Stills has its moments, and a few of them are thrilling indeed, thanks in large part to the playing and singing of such notable drop-ins as Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Ringo Starr, and just about every folk-rocker in Laurel Canyon. C. and N. (if not Y.) make cameos, as do Cass Elliott and John Sebastian. Hell, even Booker T. Jones shows up to say hi.

But the good times are relegated to side one, and what I take away from Stephen Stills isn’t the memory of good songs (I can only remember one of them, and that’s because I’ve heard it a million times) so much as good performances. As a songwriter, Stills just isn’t up to superstar scratch. The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau put his finger on the problem when he wrote, “[Stills] seems too damn skillful to put down. Yet there’s something terribly undefined about this record. Hmm–maybe it’s the songs.”

Perhaps you can adduce as much from the cover, which features Stills sitting next to a ceramic giraffe who looks paralyzed by boredom. I’ll bet you that giraffe has a soft spot for free-love anthem “Love the One You’re With,” but who doesn’t, what with its rumbling congas and steel drums and that very groovy organ. It’s the apotheosis of the easy-going sexual mores of 1970 California, and I’ve been known to play it just for laughs.

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Graded on a Curve:
High Tide,
Sea Shanties

So I’m back with my close personal friend Herman Melville, author of the world’s first how-to manual on sperm whaling (Herm: “I swiped the title from a Led Zep song!”) and Herman’s–how’s the best way to put it?–a bit riled up.

The last time we got together Herman proceeded to drink about a dozen 40s of Haffenreffer Private Stock malt liquor (my old pig farmer pal Billy Harrison SWORE it had mescaline in it, but based solely on taste I suspect the secret ingredient is ASS) before delivering a rather dazed and confused sermon on the virtues of the Backstreet Boys’ “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back).” And believe it or not he actually won me over.

But not tonight. Because tonight he’s REALLY wasted (“Gimme another Haffen-Wrecker! NOW!”) and all he wants to do is tell big fish stories about some album by a band called High Tide I’ve never heard of and don’t particularly want to hear. But old Ahab is insistent and what’s more he’s brought the fucking album with him, and when Herman’s on a tear it’s best to just get out of his way.

But before he can put it on I snatch the empty sleeve out of his hands and say, “What is this shit? Sea Shanties? I ain’t listenin’ to no fucking sea shanties! I HATE folk music!” And Herman’s like, “These ain’t your old harpooner’s sea shanties of the sort you’ll find on Paul Clayton’s Whaling and Sailing Songs (From the Days of Moby Dick)! NOBODY likes that shit! I nearly PUKED every time I was forced to listen to “The Maid of Amsterdam” during my whaling days on the Acushnet! It’s the reason I jumped ship in the Marquesas Seas! This is rock’n’roll! With just a whiff of prog to it but not enough so’s you’d want to make it walk the plank!”

“I don’t believe you!” I shout. “What do you know about music anyway? You’re a goddamned customs inspector!” “Retired!” bellows Herman, who is touchy on the subject. “And wrote a book called The Pizza Tales!” I shout, just to dig the knife in a bit deeper. “That’s The PIAZZA Tales!” he roars. “Now get outta my beard and listen to this shit!” He puts it on, muttering, “Came out in ‘69. One of the first rock albums with a violin on it. Blah blah blah blah… “

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Graded on a Curve: Procol Harum,
Procol Harum

Oh groovy of groovies! Procol Harum MADE the Summer of Love with their immortal debut single “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” If I recall correctly John Lennon used to pump it out the windows of his psychedelic Rolls Royce while driving stoned immaculate down happening Carnaby Street, and why not? The sound is heavy as Bach, the lyrics are, like, deep, man, and listening to it is like slow dancing your way across the bottoms of tangerine seas while the sun of the real world beats on the waves above you a million, trillion miles away.

John Lennon again: “You play it when you take some acid and wooooo.”

A couple of months later Procol Harum gave us their debut LP (and one of the finest albums of 1967), Procol Harum. Released by my favorite label, Regal Zonophone, Procol Harum is every bit as groovy as “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” which didn’t make it onto the U.K. release but was included on the U.S. one. Procol Harum can be divided into heavy tunes and pop lightweights but it doesn’t have a loser on it unless you include the silly “Good Captain Clack,” which the folks at Regal Zonophone had the good sense to jettison from the U.S. version in favor of “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”

People talk about Procol Harum being a slice of proto-prog and I suppose they’re right; organist Matthew Fisher liked his dead composers every bit as much as Keith Emerson. But–but!–he never lowered himself to slavish imitation but instead alchemized the sounds of all those defunct powdered wig-wearing geniuses in such a way that you never feel like you’re being forced to inhale some moribund Beethoven’s classical gas.

Take “Repent Walpurgis.” It may have been built on the moldering corpses of Charles-Marie Widor and Johann Sebastian Bach but what I hear is one cool instrumental; sure, Fisher waxes classical on the organ, but he’s playing it with soul, and soul is what differentiates this baby from your typical ELP Mussorgsky plod. The proof? His organ sounds right at home with Robin “Bridge of Sighs” Trower’s truly astounding guitar caterwaul. Fisher’s more playful, too; his organ on the jaunty “She Wandered Through the Garden Fence” may fall under the label “neoclassical,” but it’s also a lot of fun.

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Graded on a Curve:
John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band,
Shaved Fish

When it comes to the 1975 John Lennon compilation album Shaved Fish, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Here Apple Records went to the trouble of collecting all but one of Lennon’s post-Beatles solo singles, and what do we get? A bizarre melange of primal screams, fuzzy-headed idealism, weak-kneed political rants, and a fucking Christmas song. Oh, and a couple of also kinda fuzzy songs that demonstrate the fact that, even though Lennon was a lost man, he still had some magic in him.

Plenty of people think very highly indeed of Lennon the solo artist. Me, I think he was a confused man, and the mishmash that is Shaved Fish only reinforces this belief. This odds and sods collection of singles tells me that Lennon never came close to realizing his Beatles genius. It’s a kind of cabinet of curiosities, many of which sound dated in a way that his work with the Fab Four never will. His Beatles work was timeless; the same can’t be said for such creaky antiquities as “Give Peace a Chance,” “Power to the People,” “Woman Is the Nigger of the World,” and “Happy X-Mas (War Is Over).”

None of this should come as a surprise. Lennon hit a creative peak with 1970’s Plastic Ono Band and 1971’s Imagine, and it was straight downhill from there. Only hardcore fans will attempt to sell you on 1973’s lackluster Mind Games, 1974’s almost as lackluster Walls and Bridges, or 1975’s failed attempt at roots revivalism Rock’n’Roll. All three were the work of a man who was at loose ends creatively and going through the motions, and you can count the number of truly memorable songs on this unholy trio with one hand. And don’t even get me started on 1972’s Some Time in New York City.

The first of the ragtag assortment of tunes that constitutes Shaved Fish is “Give Peace a Chance.” Now the best I can say about “Give Peace a Chance” is that it inspired the Bonzo Dog Band to record “Give Booze a Chance,” and to make matters worse Shaved Fish only gives us a 57-second excerpt of the damned song. Next up is the powerful “Cold Turkey” (nothing mushy about it), which is almost certainly about Lennon’s withdrawal from heroin even if former gofer Fred Seaman claimed it was about a case of turkey-related food poisoning. Watch out for those Thanksgiving leftovers, people; not only will they have you on the run, they will give you the runs.

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Graded on a Curve:
Chuck Mangione,
Feels So Good

So I’m riding shotgun in my pal Keith’s 1964 grey Rambler American outside Littlestown Pennsylvania with my pot-smoking buddies when Lenny leans over the front seat with an 8-track in hand and says, “Put this shit on. It will blow your minds!”

So we eject F. Zappa’s Hot Rats and pop his 8-track into the player and what comes out of the tri-axe speakers in faux wooden cases does indeed blow our minds because it’s some kinda vapidly upbeat bugle blurt of the sort that would make the IDEAL theme song for a wacky TV sitcom about a grouchy Nazi doctor living under an assumed name in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn.

“What is this flatulence?” I shout. “It sounds like somebody’s farting a clown!”

“It’s messing with my high!” bellows Keith.

“This is the music that was playing in the bunker when Hitler shot himself!” cries Dan from the back seat.

“Kill it! Kill it!” I scream, the way you would if you happened upon a hissing 8-foot Komodo dragon hunkered atop your stash.

“Aww, come on guys,” says Lenny. “It’s jazz! Don’t you guys like JAZZ?”

And so it was that I first laid rueful ears upon Chuck Mangione’s easy-listening landmark, 1977’s Feels So Good.

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Graded on a Curve:
Oingo Boingo,
The Best of Oingo Boingo: Skeletons in the Closet

Let me tell you something about myself, dear reader; when the first word that comes to mind when I hear a band is “zany,” I reach for my revolver. And such is the case with Oingo Boingo, the New Wave band who turned “wacky” into an aesthetic and in so doing charmed the skinny neckties off a whole lot of people back in the 1980s.

Under the leadership of Danny “I Make Soundtracks Now” Elfman, Oingo Boingo created a very skewed ska- and world music-tinged New Wave that put the emphasis on whiplash, herky-jerky tempos, quirky arrangements, and nonconventional scales and harmony. If your tastes run to the off-kilter and you like a vocalist who does his level best to annoy, I recommend Oingo Boingo wholeheartedly.

Rock critic Robert Christgau dismissed Oingo Boingo with the words, “These guys combine the worst of Sparks with the worst of the Circle Jerks.” Me, what I hear when I listen to 1989’s The Best of Oingo Boingo: Skeletons in the Closet is an admittedly mischievous mashup of other, better bands. The Cars, Devo, Wall of Voodoo, Sparks, The English Beat and a whole slew of other New Wave outfits I never cared very much for to begin with all come to mind. All of which probably means I’m not the fairest judge of the merits of the album under review, but hey–I get paid big bucks to listen to records and proffer my opinion on them, and I guess it’s just Oingo Boingo’s lucky day.

Skeletons in the Closet collects 12 songs from the three LPs Oingo Boingo recorded during their tenure with A&M from 1981 to 1983, and makes as helpful an introduction to the ostensible charms of the band’s early work as any of the aforementioned studio LPs. I’m listening to it on free Spotify, and it’s hardly an auspicious sign that I find myself looking forward to the commercials.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Masked Marauders,
The Masked Marauders

The history of rock’n’roll is littered with great scams and practical jokes that took on a life of their own; I give you Klaatu (they’re really The Beatles!) and the great 1969 tour of America by The Zombies (two separate bands toured the States at the same time, and neither was the real Zombies, who had broken up). And of course there are Self Portrait and Metal Machine Music, both of which stand as great practical jokes regardless of their makers’ true intentions.

But the grandaddy of all rock’n’roll swindles is the 1969 “bootleg” The Masked Marauders, which supposedly documents a top-secret supersession involving John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney and other notables held at a top-secret location near Hudson Bay, Canada, which was supposedly produced by (it only figures) Mr. Supersessions himself, Al Kooper.

The whole affair started innocently enough with a practical joke of a record review concocted by Rolling Stone scribe Greil Marcus, but soon took on the dimensions of a conspiracy straight out of the mind of Thomas Pynchon. Writing under the pseudonym of T.M. Christian (swiped from Terry Southern’s The Magic Christian), Marcus penned a review of the nonexistent bootleg in which he extolled its myriad virtues, which included Dylan “displaying his new deep bass voice” on a cover of “Duke of Earl” and an eighteen-minute version of “Season of the Witch” on which Bobby “does a superb imitation of early Donovan.” The same song, gushed Marcus, “is highlighted by an amazing jam between bass and piano, both played by Paul McCartney.”

The sham might have ended there, but fate had other plans. An excited public wanted to know where it could find The Masked Marauders, and an emboldened Marcus (along with Rolling Stone editor Langdon Winner) went the next mile by sending San Francisco’s Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band into the studio to record a few singles from the imaginary album including the aforementioned “Duke of Earl,” the Stones parody “I Can’t Get No Nookie,” and the Nashville Skyline parody “Cow Pie.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Deep Purple,
Machine Head

If I’ve never come forward publicly about the indelible mark I made on rock history at the Montreaux Jazz Festival in 1971, it’s because I’m still peeved that Deep Purple saw fit to slander me as “Some stupid with a flare gun” in their big hit single “Smoke on the Water.” Firing that flare gun into the roof of the Montreaux Casino may not have been the smartest thing I’ve ever done, but STUPID? I was EXCITED, and I just happened to have a flare gun on my person, and one thing led to another and before I knew it the rattan ceiling was on fire and all manner of shrieks were freaking towards the exits.

But enough personal history and on to Deep Purple, a band that I’ve always had reservations about. I find the English heavy metal avatars ponderous, plodding, and unduly portentous, and if you don’t know what I mean I direct you to “Smoke on the Water,” which is the very un-lightweight little ditty they’ll probably best be remembered for and which I can only describe as a very stoned dinosaur stomping in slow dazed circles to the accompaniment of one gargantuan and omnipresent guitar riff.

That said, Deep Purple–who after a lot of early creative experimentation and moments of serendipitous genius finally settled upon a sound that combined elements of prog rock and the grinding blues-based hard rock that would become known as heavy metal–had their moments, and lots of them are to be found on their sixth and most commercially successful LP, 1972’s Machine Head. From its very metallic (the title’s stamped in steel!) cover to its far-out boogie numbers Machine Head is one wild ride, what with Ian Gillian’s shriek, Ritchie Blackmore’s blazing guitar, Jon Lord’s “I am two separate gorillas” organ, and the positively intimidating drumming of Sir Ian Paice, who has yet to be knighted but certainly ought to be lest he become angry and start throwing punches.

Deep Purple originally intended to record this baby at the Montreaux Casino in Switzerland, but that was before, well, I’ve already broken my long silence about the fire that “burned the place to the ground.” After deciding that it probably wouldn’t be a very good idea to record their next album atop a smoking ruins, they retreated to the empty Grand Hotel at the outskirts of Montreaux, and with the help of the Rolling Stones’ mobile recording unit proceeded to make this surprisingly uptempo (by D.P. standards) piece of music history, which the very clear-headed Ozzy Osbourne has called one of his ten favorite British LPs of all time.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Mountain Goats, Transcendental Youth

The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle has a knack for the numinous; more than any musical artist I know, more than Van Morrison even, he possesses the amazing capacity to part the invisible veil that separates us from our spirit selves. His best songs brim with transcendence, captured in remarkably vivid detail and concrete metaphors that bring home the fact that we are so much more than mere flesh and blood.

On 2004’s We Shall All Be Healed he gave us “Against Pollution,” which offset a fatal liquor store shooting against a lovely and moving evocation of a final reckoning that is totally personal; “When the last days come,” he sings, “We shall see visions/More vivid than sunsets/Brighter than stars/We will recognize each other/And see ourselves for the first time/The way we really are.” On 2012’s Transcendental Youth he bequeathed us “White Cedar,” on which he sings, “Like a star come down to walk the Earth in radiant array/I saw the light of my spirit descend the other day/I was standing the bus stop on North East 33rd/When I got the word/I will be made a new creature/One bright day.”

Darnielle is without a doubt the best lyricist working in the field of rock music; a storyteller of mesmerizing subtlety, he has the uncanny ability to speak through his characters, who tend to be outsiders and down-and-outers who seem dead set on repeating the same mistakes over and over again but possess just enough hope to believe they’ll find a way out. Or in some cases, enough stubborn defiance to proudly sing while the ship sinks. I direct you to “No Children,” in which a man in a doomed marriage sings hopefully about taking one final fateful swan dive to the bottom: “I am drowning/There is no sign of land/You are coming down with me/Hand in unlovable hand/And I hope you die/I hope we both die.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Rivers of Nihil,
Where Owls Know
My Name

I don’t talk much about my Death Metal Years because they were very dark and I was frequently horny. What I will say about my tenures in such renowned Black Metal bands as Cannibal Infant and Skewer Christ is that they marked a time of deep spiritual seeking, most of it done the traditional way–by drawing pentagrams on the floor of the Walmart warehouse where my buddy and bandmate Doug worked.

You may remember Cannibal Infant for the immortal “Satanicon,” the satanic “Immorticon,” and the randy “We’re Horny (Touch Our Horns).” Hell, we might have actually gone places had Doug not renounced Satan (and the bass guitar) to pursue a career in floral arrangements. I’ve never been able to figure out why you can’t make floral arrangements AND worship Satan, but Doug sees things differently.

I don’t listen to as much Death Metal as I used to, but I like to keep abreast of the trends, and the up-and-coming band that most makes me want to go on a church-burning tour of Norway hails from, you’ll never guess, Reading, Pennsylvania. Yes, Reading, Pennsylvania, non-Satanic hotbed of your plain Amish Volk, who continue to speak in their amusing Pennsylvania Dutch dialect until this very day. I wonder how they’d say, “Bang your head!”? Wait, I know! “Je hoofd stoten!”

Just goes to show you never know where Satan is going to establish his dominion over Earth. Or more likely the lads in Rivers of Nihil are no more sons of Satan than I am. I’ll betcha they’re as decent and upstanding as everybody else from Reading, Pennsylvania, and don’t dabble in pot much less pentagrams. Hell, they probably don’t even drink their coffee black.

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Graded on a Curve:
Little Feat,
Down on the Farm

It may seem callous to pick on a Little Feat that was at its last gasp, but 1979’s Down on the Farm makes for such a good late-seventies cautionary tale. It shows what can happen when (1) a blues and boogie-loving genius (Lowell George) lets a couple of nefarious jazz-fusion infiltrators (Bill Payne and Paul Barrere) slyly insinuate their way into the driver’s seat, and (2) a uniquely American band with an idiosyncratic sound (the Band meets the Stones meets The Flying Burrito Brothers) takes an ugly turn towards mainstream mediocrity.

Down on the Farm is the last Little Feat album George would play on; hard living would kill him in a hotel in Arlington, VA before it was finished and released. In an interview conducted shortly before his death George–having finally come to his senses–announced his intention to continue on with Little Feat sans Payne and Barrere. Seems the rough-edged bluesman in him was finally putting his foot down, but it was too little too late.

It’s hard to know whether Down on the Farm’s cosmetized commercial feel marked a deliberate ploy for radio play or signaled a singular drop-off in the band’s once formidable songwriting chops. But one thing’s for sure: Down on the Farm is a vapid affair, and just another interchangeable example of the sterilized LA studio product that was so inexplicably in vogue at the time. It’s not Yacht Rock, but it’s not so far away from the Little River Band either.

The A side of Down on the Farm is a lackluster affair, but compared to the B side it almost shines. The title cut (which was written and sung by Barrere, whom George always considered the lesser villain) is as close as Down on the Farm comes to a winner. It has that good old Little Feat grind going for it; the groove is deep, the guitars have edge, and the harmonies are all in place. “Six Feet of Snow” (which George wrote with the Grateful Dead’s Keith Godchaux) is catchy enough, but like most of the songs on Down on the Farm it lacks edge and simply isn’t that memorable; without Sneaky Pete Kleinow pedal steeling all over it, this baby would hardly register at all. And Bill Payne’s synthesized accordion (I think that’s what I’m hearing) is too upfront for my tastes.

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Graded on a Curve:
JJ Cale,

Folks take things pretty slow down in Tulsa; they ain’t in no particular hurry to get anywhere, and see no good reason to talk real fast like your Northern city slickers either. Ain’t nothin’ can’t be put off ‘til tomorrow, and that includes this here record review, which I intend to write at a slow shuffle. The late JJ Cale, who epitomized the laid-back Tulsa sound better than anybody–without even trying, natch, because trying is hard work and not how they do things down in Oklahoma–probably would have wanted it that way.

Cale inspired the likes of Eric Clapton and Neil Young, wrote a handful of songs like “Call Me the Breeze” and “Cocaine” that have entered the popular music lexicon, and in general left a faint but indelible mark on the American sound with his mellow blend of blues, country, rockabilly, and jazz. Call his music what you will (Americana, swamp rock, country rock, Red Dirt–the list goes on), the important thing to remember is that Cale was relaxed. Relaxed as dirt, relaxed as that raccoon sauntering at his leisure from your overturned trash can (keep hollering, he doesn’t care), relaxed as the oldest bluesman to ever pick out a song on yonder shotgun shack porch. Hurry just wasn’t in his vocabulary; take a potshot at him, and he’d have probably flinched slow.

In 1972 Cale, then in his thirties, finally got around to recording his first album, Naturally. Eric Clapton had just made a hit out of Cale’s “After Midnight,” and intrigued by the idea that he might be able to make some actual pocket change by being his laid-back self Cale found some time in his anything-but-hectic schedule to record 12 songs before, I don’t know, taking a long nap. Nobody would call the results electrifying, but in their own small way they changed the course of history.

I’ll say one thing for JJ–he simply refuses to be hurried. Hell, he even sings slow on the fast ones, and there aren’t that many fast ones. He’s content to shuffle along like an old dog to his supper, which isn’t going anywhere anyway. And this is both Cale’s genius and his downfall. If you’re a fan of laid back you probably love him. If you’re not a fan, like me, you find yourself wishing he’d chug a couple of cans of Red Bull and top them off with some NoDoz. Robert Christgau wrote of Naturally, “Push a little, fellas, it’ll feel so good.” I can’t help but agree with the guy.

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Graded on a Curve:
Brian Eno,
Here Come the Warm Jets

What a divine creature: In the first half of the 1970s the pre-ambient Brian Eno flitted about England’s glitter rock scene in fantastical glam attire, making an indelible mark on Roxy Music’s first two LPs with his VCS3 synthesizer and “tape effects” before moving on to create two utterly idiosyncratic art rock masterpieces with Here Come the Warm Jets and Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, both released in 1974.

On the former album, Eno utilized a boldly original approach to recording that placed a high premium on happy accidents that were not really accidental; Eno very deliberately lined up a cast of studio musicians he felt would be incompatible with one another just to see what would happen. In his own words he organized the situation “with the knowledge that there might be accidents, accidents which will be more interesting than what I had intended.” He then doubled down on the oddness by “treating” instruments and doing a lot of heavy condensing and mixing of the recorded tracks, some of which ended up sounding nothing like what the musicians played in the studio.

In short Eno puts chance in charge, and like any good gambler chance works in his favor. Marcel Duchamp abandoned art to play chess; if Eno were to retire, he would no doubt take up craps. Not enough random variables in the game of kings.

Art Rock with a sense of humor and none of the grandiosity, Here Come the Warm Jets is a collection of beautifully textured songs filled with staggering performances by the slew of stellar performers Eno gathered together because he thought they didn’t belong together. All of Roxy Music (excepting Bryan Ferry) were on hand, as were guitar aces Chris Spedding and Robert Fripp; other players included members of King Crimson, Hawkwind, Pink Fairies, and Matching Mole. They don’t seem like such an incongruous bunch to me–Spedding excepted, there’s a decided tilt towards art- and prog-rock–but if Eno considered ‘em an Odd Bunch, well, he’s the guys with the ears.

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