Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
The Smiths,
The Queen Is Dead

I’m a Morrissey fan by temperament—of all the musicians who have ever lived, Manchester’s most famous miserabalist (he even beats Mark E. Smith!) comes closest to sharing my belief that hope is the lubricant that keeps the human meat grinder running—and because I consider him the funniest musician to ever kvetch into a microphone.

I can’t help but love a man who quipped, “What’s the first thing I do when I wake up in the morning? Wish I hadn’t.” And was quoted as saying, “I have found the best way to avoid ending your life as a bitter wreck is to start out as one.” The Mancunian misanthropist’s feckless take on life is utterly hilarious, and what I’ll never get over is there are people out there who don’t think he’s funny. No wonder Morrissey’s miserable; he’s a great comedian but nobody gets his jokes.

And the jokes just keep on coming on The Smiths’ third studio LP, 1986’s The Queen Is Dead. Morrissey possesses a savage wit; “Girlfriend in a Coma” is a black comedy for the ages. And on The Queen Is Dead Morrissey is in top form. He opens “Bigmouth Strikes Again” with the lines, “Sweetness, sweetness I was only joking/When I said I’d like to/Smash every tooth in your head/Sweetness, sweetness I was only joking/When I said by rights/You should be bludgeoned in your bed” and you can practically hear him cackling. And his take on dying a romantic death on “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” (“And if a double-decker bus/Crashes into us/To die by your side/Is such a heavenly way to die/And if a ten-ton truck/Kills the both of us/To die by your side/Well, the pleasure—the privilege is mine”) never fails to crack me up.

On other tracks his sense of humor veers wildly towards the absurd. He delights in the sight of a vicar in a tutu; he is astonished by the revelation that some girls are bigger than others, and some girls’ mothers are bigger than other girls’ mothers; he heads to the “cemetry” because it’s a “dreadful sunny day.” On the great title track Morrissey breaks into the royal palace with “a sponge and a rusty spanner” only to run into the Queen who says, “Eh, I know you, and you cannot sing.” To which he replies, “That’s nothing—you should hear me play the piano.” On the impossibly bleak “Never Had No One Ever” he hilariously puts a time stamp on a really bad dream (i.e., “It lasted 20 years, 7 months, and 27 days”) because he wants us to know that really bad dream happens to be his life. The man is a crack-up even at his most miserable, which is of course always.

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Graded on a Curve:
Double Nickels on
the Dime

Like Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade, the Minutemen’s 1984 LP Double Nickels on the Dime is a comedy album by concept. What could be funnier than tweeking hardcore’s anti-music industry ethos by birthing that most bloated of all music industry beasts, the double album?

Overweening ambition flew in the face of the entire hardcore konzept—the medium was bested suited to the EP, where you could rip off six or eight songs in six or eight minutes and be done with it (see for example the Minutemen’s seven-song “Paranoid Time” EP from 1980, which clocks in at just over five minutes). But the Minutemen pulled it off and by so doing bequeathed us one of the finest and most expansive albums of the eighties, or any time for that matter.

And San Pedro’s favorite sons produced their double LP without surrending any of their much vaunted principles. Guitarist/vocalist D. Boon, bassist/vocalist Mike Watt, and drummer extraordinaire George Hurley heroically refused to elongate their trademark abbreviated song forms to make the task of filling four album sides easier. Instead they gathered up 45 songs—most of which were less than two minutes long, and none of which broke the 3-minute barrier—and fired them at our ears in a gattling gun, no time to pause between songs blur.

The results are dizzying, giddy-making, and sometimes bewilderingly eclectic, because like SST label mates the Meat Puppets the Minutemen never allowed themselves to be straitjacketed into the loud and fast constraints of hardcore. Jazz was always an integral part of the Minutemen sound, and they weren’t afraid to go the funk, country, folk, and spoken-word poetry routes either. Theirs was hodgepodge aesthetic, and half of the joy of Double Nickels on the Dime is waiting to find out what undreamt of turn will come next.

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Graded on a Curve:
Jackson Browne,
For Everyman

I’ve come up with a great contest idea. If you win second place Jackson Browne plays an intimate show in your living room. If you win first place Jackson Browne doesn’t play an intimate concert in your living room. Just kidding. Jackson Browne has never been my sensitive El Lay singer-songwriter of choice, but then again I can’t be said to have a sensitive El Lay singer-songwriter of choice. All I know for sure is he beats hell out of Andrew Gold.

That said, let me start all over again with two quick observations on Browne’s 1973 sophomore album, For Everyman. One: You would think a legendary singer-songwriter of Jackson’s fastidious ilk would have put more time into writing compelling songs. Two: The songs that are compelling are the ones he seems to have spent the least time writing. Does it make sense that we should applaud such a deep soul as Browne for what appear to be his toss-offs?

Why not? The serious Jackson Browne has problems. For starters, he’s not a very good poet, at least on For Everyman. It’s impossible to know what the hell he’s trying to say when he says things like, “Hanging at my door/Many shiny surfaces/clinging in the breeze” (from “Colors of the Sun”) or “I Thought I was a child/Until you turned and smiled” (from “I Thought I Was a Child”). Browne has a gift for the portentous that borders on the pretentious, but too many of his songs hinge upon lyrical vagaries that drift away like smoke when you try to parse their meanings.

More problematic by far is the fact that too many of the songs on For Everyman appear to have failed out of charm school. It’s hard to imagine a song more colorless than “Colors of the Sun”; the melody plods along like a workhorse, the lyrics are so much mush signifying not so much. And “Sing My Songs for Me” ain’t much better. Browne has a template for dirges like this one, and on For Everyman he repeats the formula too often. “The Times You’ve Come” has a more delicate feel but the result is the same; I don’t know what you call what Jackson does but I call it droning. The slow tempos drag you into a pit of ennui that only a quick listen to Elton John’s “The Bitch Is Back” will alleviate.

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Graded on a Curve: Blackmore’s Night,
Shadow of the Moon

What does it feel like to be a voluntary atavism? I can understand those contemporary rockers who fall prey to an irresistible urge to retreat to the days of rockabilly; life nowadays is so complicated and scary and it’s hard to fight the longing for a return to some mythical, “simpler” time.

But there’s looking backwards and then there’s really looking backwards and it took the unadulterated genius of Ritchie Blackmore—of Deep Purple and Blackmore’s Rainbow fame—to slither his way backwards in time the whole way to the Renaissance.

The Renaissance! Oh wondrous age! When the men wore codpieces and the women wore merkins and people got smarter! And folks wiped their greasy hands on the olde pub dog and suffered from black bile and lived to the ripe old age of 35! Those were great times if you were a fan of the Great Plague, and Blackmore—along with wife Candice Night, who does the singing—unwittingly provide an appropriately pestilential soundtrack for the Age of the Black Death.

The songs on 1997’s Shadow of the Moon would sound just right coming from the stage of your local Renaissance Faire. The problem is I hate Renaissance Faires. I was strong-armed into attending one once and it was all I could do not to beat the closest wandering minstrel to death with an oversized turkey leg. If there’s one thing in this world I cannot abide it’s a wandering minstrel. And lest you think Blackmore and Night would be offended by comparisons with Renaissance Faires please allow me to point out that they’ve seen fit to equip Shadow of the Moon with a song called “Renaissance Faire.” About the best I can say for it is that it’s every bit as vapidly pleasant as most of the other songs on this benighted LP.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Replacements,
Let It Be

Minneapolis indie rock heroes The Replacements went from snot-nosed “let’s get drunk and puke on the ceiling then fall down on stage” punks to power pop legends on the strength of the deceptively effortless songcraft of Paul Westerberg, and Westerberg reached his peak on 1984’s audaciously titled Let It Be. Taking on the Beatles takes cojones, especially from a guy who once sang, “I hate music/It’s got too many notes.”

Let It Be hardly marked the end of their “too shitfaced to play” ethos, but it was, as Westerberg would note, “the first time I had songs that we arranged, rather than just banging out riffs and giving them titles.” “I Will Dare” is a bona fide slice of pop genius; “Unsatisfied” is “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” with more heart and more soul than the jaded Mick Jagger could summon up if you tossed him into a pile of cocaine and supermodels and let him stew until unhappy. But Westerberg hadn’t lost touch with his inner punk; songs like “Gary’s Got a Boner” and “We’re Comin’ Out” would have been right at home on 1982’s puke punk classic Stink.

Let It Be is the sound of a punk growing up just to learn that growing up isn’t all that much fun. But grow up you must, as John Mellencamp could have told Paul Westerberg if he’d been willing to listen. “Everything drags and drags,” sings Westerberg on the doleful coming of age tune “Sixteen Blue”; “It’s a boring state/A boring wait, I know.” You try to call your girl and all you get is her answering machine and what does that mean? It can’t be good. And what can you really expect from the future? “Everything you dream of/Is right in front of you,” sings Westerberg, “And everything is a lie.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Yo La Tengo,
President Yo La Tengo

What’s not to like about 1996’s President Yo La Tengo? On it everybody’s favorite New Wave hotdogs express an urge to do drugs, name drop my favorite literary figure, deliver up some of the most discordant guitar mayhem this side of the Velvet Underground’s “I Heard Her Call My Name,” wax pretty as can be, and cover Bob Dylan and Antietam just to prove they can do it all.

The indie rock husband and wife team of Ira Kaplan (guitar and vocals) and Georgia Hubley (drums and vocals) have produced an embarrassment of riches over the years, in part because they have impeccable taste (which isn’t to say they’re necessarily tasteful) and an encyclopedic knowledge of rock history. More importantly, they know when to play rough and when to play nice with others. Theirs is a Jekyll and Hyde dynamic, and the tension between the two can be enthralling.

On President Yo La Tengo we get to meet both Jekyll and Hyde. The civilized Jekyll comes to us via “Alyda,” a lovely little number with a delightful melody that will make you swoon thanks to Hubley’s wonderfully understated drumming and lovely backing vocals. And Yo La Tengo is definitely in Jekyll mode on their slow and homely take on Dylan’s “I Threw It All Away,” which is both wistful and heartbreaking and (I think you’ll agree) does old Bobby proud.

On the Hyde side we have Yo La Tengo’s cover of Antietam’s “Orange Song,” which they play the hell out of at hardcore speed. The recipe is simple: Nice guy Kaplan puts a lot of growl into his vocals and plays some very mean guitar, while Hubley crashes and smashes away on the drums in the apparent belief that she’s the reincarnation of John Bonham. The result is a mosh pit in your mind, and you’re invited! This one was recorded live at CBGB, as was “The Evil That Men Do (Pablo’s Version).”

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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:
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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