Author Archives: Michael H. Little

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.

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Graded on a Curve:
Crazy Horse, (S/T)

They’re best known as Neil Young’s sometimes backing band, but Crazy Horse—and by Crazy Horse I wish to emphasize I’m talking about the first iteration of the band that included the not long for this world Danny Whitten—possessed mad songwriting and singing skills all their own, as they demonstrated on their largely unheralded 1971 debut, the brilliant Crazy Horse.

Co-produced by the legendary Jack Nitzsche, pianist/songwriter and former member of Phil Spector’s Wrecking Crew, Crazy Horse includes several songs either written or cowritten by Nitzsche (who plays with the band on the outing) as well as a wonderful contribution by Young. But the LP’s true standout tracks are those by the talented but troubled Whitten, who would shortly thereafter be fired by Young due to his heroin addiction only to die from an overdose (either from a lethal combination of diazepam and alcohol, or on methaqualone by its owned damned self, the stories vary) on November 18, 1972. He was 29.

In addition to Whitten (guitar, vocals), Crazy Horse included Billy Talbot (bass, backing vocals), Ralph Molina (drums, vocals), and guitar prodigy Nils Lofgren (who also contributed two songs, “Nobody” and “Beggar’s Day,” on which he sings lead.). Were they are a badass outfit? Have you ever heard Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere? But on Crazy Horse the band takes the opportunity to stand on its own four legs (it’s a horse after all) and gallop, and by god gallop it does.

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Graded on a Curve:
Steely Dan,
Can’t Buy a Thrill

The passing of Steely Dan co-founder Walter Becker hit me hard; my fond memories of them go all the way back to their debut LP, 1972’s Can’t Buy a Thrill, which an unusually hip (for the tiny Nowhereville I grew up in, at least) high school music teacher used to make us listen to in class. She was doing her best, that intrepid educator, to help us turn on, tune in, and drop out. Or if not to drop out, at least to alert us to the fact that contemporary music didn’t begin and end with Carole King’s Tapestry.

Steely Dan has always had its detractors; I know because I’ve slagged them my own damn self. I love their early work, but rued their slow slide into the smooth jazz precincts of such LPs as 1977’s Aja and 1980’s Gaucho. Was I too hard on Becker and Donald Fagen? In hindsight, yes. “Deacon Blue” may be a bit too Vaseline-based for my tastes but it has its charms—indeed, when it comes to loser anthems, it’s one of the best.

As for those folks who hate Steely Dan altogether, well, I just don’t understand them. Nor do I understand the labels (soft rock? really?) some critics have slapped on the band over the years. (Why, Rob Sheffield went so far as to write off Can’t Buy a Thrill as—alas and alack—“mellow folk rock”!) Sure, Can’t Buy a Thrill makes for relatively mellow listening. But it’s a smart person’s mellow listen and doesn’t include an ounce of folk. Its songs are complex and its cynical lyrics are the best a good cynicism-breeding Bard College education can buy. And unlike almost any “soft rock” band then in existence, Steely Dan could always be counted on to throw a fiery guitar-fueled spanner (“Reelin’ in the Years”) into the works. Elliott Randall, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, and Danny Dias all appear on Can’t Buy a Thrill, and all three are guitar slingers straight off the top shelf.

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Graded on a Curve:
Huey Lewis and The News, The Heart of Rock & Roll: The Best of Huey Lewis and The News

When it comes to Huey Lewis and The News, the only critical analysis that really matters is the one delivered by Patrick Bateman, the New York investment banker/serial killer protagonist of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho.

Bateman’s infamous monologue (in the 1991 film adaptation, anyway) goes, “Their early work was a little too new wave for my tastes, but when Sports came out in ’83, I think they really came into their own, commercially and artistically. The whole album has a clear, crisp sound, and a new sheen of consummate professionalism that really gives the songs a big boost. He’s been compared to Elvis Costello, but I think Huey has a far more bitter, cynical sense of humor.” (That last line always cracks me up.)

Bateman’s assessment of Huey Lewis and The News is as gleefully perverse as his favorite hobby, but let’s consider for a moment the possibility that it’s, er, dead on. Sure, his appraisal’s every bit as generic and shallow (“a new sheen of consummate professionalism that gives the songs a big boost”) as the bland façade of normalcy he projects to protect his depraved inner life, but there’s no denying that millions of people gobbled the music of Huey Lewis up, and it most certainly was not because they were looking for some deep message of social or personal import in such songs as “Hip To Be Square” or “I Want a New Drug.” No, one can only conclude that during the 1980s (Lewis’ heyday) the world was FULL of Patrick Batemans, even if they weren’t all murderous psychopaths.

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Graded on a Curve:
Ian Felice,
In the Kingdom of Dreams

First, the good news—Ian Felice, frontman of the jaw-droppingly wonderful The Felice Brothers, has just released his debut solo album, In the Kingdom of Dreams.

Another piece of even better news—his solo jaunt does not spell the break-up of the Catskill Mountains-based Felice Brothers, whom I consider to be perhaps the finest band in America. If they were to call it a day, I don’t know what I’d do. Go to the nearest roadhouse and tell the barkeep to put some whisky in my whisky, probably. As the guy says in Animal House, some situations are so utterly unacceptable they require a really stupid and futile response on somebody’s part. And to paraphrase another guy in Animal House, I’m just the guy to do it.

Now for the not-so-great news. Half of the album’s 10 tracks, which were recorded in Felice’s childhood hometown of Palenville, NY over the course of four frigid days in February 2017, are irredeemably downcast, which can make for a tough listen unless you’re suicidal, in which case this just might be the perfect soundtrack for perfecting your noose-knotting technique. And the other five, while lovely, are anything but chipper.

Don’t get me wrong—In the Kingdom of Dreams is still an extraordinary piece of work, even if does lack those raucous shouts of pure joy that have made every Felice Brothers LP I own a celebration of being alive. But what are you going to do? Based on Felice’s comments about the project, I gather it constituted a therapeutic means of working through some tough personal issues, and if the results are far from upbeat, they nevertheless offer the listener a dark but revelatory glimpse into the soul of a very complex and brilliant artist. Besides, it’s not as if Felice hasn’t written his fair share of brooding songs in the past; indeed, one could argue they’re more the norm than not.

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Graded on a Curve:
Jimmy Buffett,
Songs You Know
by Heart

Gather round, all ye Parrotheads! Because I’m here to announce the government has just adopted a plan to lasso you all up and corral you in Kansas internment camps where your silly hats and overly loud Hawaiian shirts won’t pose a menace to the morals (and eyeballs!) of the more self-respecting members of our fair society! Just kidding, folks. While Jimmy Buffett has his fair share of slaggers I’m not one of them—sure, “Cheeseburger in Paradise” irks me no end, but I sing along to “Margaritaville” every time it comes on the radio, and “Come Monday” always melts my heart.

Buffett has carved himself a unique niche in American popular culture—he’s our great nation’s Official Tropical Escapist Balladeer, whose every song celebrates the freedom to sit on the shady porch of a dilapidated Gulf Coast beach house doing nothing but drinking margaritas all day without suffering the kinds of baleful consequences that land so many daily drinkers in the gloomy rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Relentlessly upbeat even when he’s singing about being down and out, Buffett’s as sunny as the sky above Key West, and just like the sun he wants to shine his warmth down upon all of us. The guy is, let’s face it, charming, and who can resist charming? Well lots of people, actually, but once again I’m not one of them even if I am a nasty cynic of the sort who usually casts a gimlet eye upon the type of guy who possesses the annoying knack of looking at the bright side of everything, including a slow slide into cirrhosis of the liver.

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Graded on a Curve:
Patti Smith Group,
Easter

Never—never!—have I encountered an album so brilliant, bad, enthralling, infuriating, and just plain pretentious in so many ways as Patti Smith’s Passover 1978 offering to her many genuflecting worshippers, Easter. Smith can be a ferocious vocalist, and an inspired and inspiring artist to boot, but I’ll be damned if I’ll buy into her shaman’s shuck or her often bathetic poetry for that matter.

I simply don’t trust her; while her hero and role model Arthur Rimbaud spent his season in hell (which he went into in harrowing detail in his Une Saison en Enfer), Patti the elitist (who humbly went on record as saying “I never think anybody should do art unless they’re a great artist”—geesh, I wonder if she puts herself in that class?) spent her season in Hell being feted by the celebrities of the New York City punk scene, and I have never for one moment believed she harrowed anything more soul-scorching than the parties she had to attend with Debbie Harry, whom she loathed for having the audacity to be a woman and an artist and hence a threat to Patti’s role as the undisputed Queen of NYC punk.

As poor Harry said, “Basically Patti told me that there wasn’t room for two women in the CBGB’s scene and that I should leave the business ‘cause I didn’t stand a chance against her.” Evidently Patti the prima donna had no interest whatsoever in feminist unity. (And indeed, many feminists would go on to attack Smith for her altogether dismissive statements on feminism, which she was adamant in declaring played no role whatsoever in her success.)

And she’s not a very good poet either. “Babelogue” may be an enthralling listen, but pay careful attention to the words and what you’re left with is the stark realization that Smith is no more a poet than poor dead Jimbo Morrison. Both toss off the occasional great line, but “the scroll of ancient lettuce” is bunk, while “I would measure the success of a night/By the way by the way/By the amount of piss and seed/I would exude over the columns that nestled the P.A.” is problematic at many levels. Both “exude” and “nestled” are poor word choices, and call me overly fastidious but I can’t help but feel sorry for the poor peon (not that Patti would care about her; she’s no genius) left to clean up this mess. And what in God’s name are we to make of the line, “Like a log of Helen/Is my pleasure”?

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Graded on a Curve:
Faust, Faust IV

My God, my god, look not so fierce on me!
Adders and serpents, let me breathe a while!
Ugly hell, gape not! come not, Lucifer!
I’ll burn my books!—Ah, Mephistophilis!
[Exeunt DEVILS with FAUSTUS.]”

Christopher Marlowe, Dr. Faustus

I begin my musings on Krautrock legends Faust with the above quote not because devils dragged them to Hell for dabbling in the dark arts on their landmark 1973 album Faust IV, but because they disappeared after releasing said LP, so who’s to say Satan didn’t drag them off to the pit? For the album does partake of sorcery, albeit of the musical variety. Faust IV is so good you almost have to wonder whether they made a pact with the Devil to achieve its sublime heights.

From the compulsively listenable opening track, the drone-rocker “Krautrock” to the lovely but weird “It’s a Bit of a Pain” that closes the album, Faust IV is a must listen. Why, my only disappointment—and it’s a big one—is that Faust chose to include only a very much abridged version of the very kinetic “Just a Second (Starts Like That!),” a much, much longer version of which they included on the 2006 reissue of Faust IV. The song’s every bit as cool as “Krautrock,” and its omission strikes me as inexplicable. I suppose every deal with the Devil has its price.

The moody and very pretty “Jennifer,” the effervescent “Giggly Smile,” and the almost countrified “It’s a Bit of a Pain” all devolve into mind-boggling jams, and all three are the better for it. The last song in particular stretches out to include some truly phenomenal guitar spazz, to say nothing of a woman speaking in Swedish. Inter-European cooperation at its best!

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Graded on a Curve:
Van Morrison,
Blowin’ Your Mind!

Poor Van Morrison. Releasing your debut solo album is supposed to be a celebrity event, right? With all those months of needles and pins anticipation culminating in the birth of your first ever baby—your love child! Well, that’s not the way it went for Van the Man, who not only didn’t know he had an album coming out, but had no input whatsoever on what was going to be on it or what the cover was going to look like.

No, Morrison didn’t know diddly, and when he got his first look at the cover he said, and these are his very words, “I almost threw up, you know.” I like to think this happened in a record store, which it didn’t. I like to imagine the whole event from the point of view of the clerk working in the record store, who would have said something like, “So Van came in like usual, and I told him we’d just received a shipment of his debut album. And he said, a slight twitch in his left cheek, ‘What debut album?’ And I told him, ‘Blowin’ Your Mind!’ And he said, ‘Never heard of it.’ So I got up and took him over to the new display featuring the album, like, three times its normal size. And he proceeded to blanch. Have you ever actually seen a man blanch? He doesn’t turn white immediately. Oh no. He goes through about 40 very subtle gradations of gray on his way to white.”

“’It’s… it’s hideous,’ he said finally. Then he said, ‘I think I’m going to spew.’ ‘Spew?’ said I. ‘Certainly it’s not that bad. It looks like they’ve got your sweaty head in Roman profile surrounded by a bunch of shit brown vines and your name in some very tacky psychedelic yellow balloon lettering and… come to think about it, I suppose it is that bad.’ By this time he wasn’t talking, exactly, but delivering what I can only describe as an inarticulate speech of the heart. ‘Look on the bright side,’ I told him. ‘Compared to this, the cheesy photographic trickery that constitutes the cover of your 1970 LP His Band and the Street Choir is going to look good.’”

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Graded on a Curve: Cradle of Filth,
Nymphetamine

Life is really rather dark and well, gloomy and bleak and, to put it starkly as it were, abominable and doom-laden, isn’t it? I mean, golly, in this burial shroud of a world where every night is Samhain night and Lovecraftian horrors lurk around every corner, wouldn’t it be nice if somebody made music about how utterly blasted and totally hopeless things really are? Well, you can shout “la! la! Cthulhu fhtagn!” my absinthe drinking, underworld pale, smelling slightly of the grave friends—Cradle of Filth to the rescue!

If you’re familiar with the UK sitcom The IT Crowd you’ll know that it was Cradle of Filth that transformed up and coming young executive Richmond Avenal into a Dracula-like Goth banished to working at no job in particular behind a blood red door in the dank basement of Reynholm Industries. In one particularly hilarious episode, he offers a Cradle of Filth CD to a grieving widow at her husband’s funeral, kindly suggesting she listen to track four, “Coffin Fodder,” telling her, “It sounds horrible, but it’s actually quite beautiful.” Well, I tracked down the cut on the extreme metal band’s extremely entertaining sixth studio LP, 2004’s Nymphetamine, and it’s anything but beautiful. But boy does it shred!

Is Nymphetamine a rewarding listen? Do vampires enjoy the taste of human blood? Of course it’s bloody rewarding! The group that Richmond Avenal mildly calls “one of the best contemporary dark wave bands in the world” combines Goth imagery with unadulterated thrash and din to produce the aural equivalent of the damned French poet and dandy Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal. Dani Filth provides the requisite death wraith vocals; guitarists Paul Allender and “Germs Warfare” (aka James McIlroy) slash away like werewolves making mincemeat of your dear old granny. And “Martin Foul” (aka Martin Powell) adds gloomy atmospherics on keyboards. Add some high-falutin’ choirs of damned souls and what you have is lots of old-fashioned evil fun—I find them hilarious, myself, but on such songs as “Filthy Little Secret,” “Gilded Cunt” (!!), “Coffin Fodder,” “Medusa and Hemlock,” and “Mother of Abominations,” I’ll be damned if Cradle of Filth don’t deliver the extreme metal goods.

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