Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve: Friction,
Dumb Numb CD

Friction are arguably one of Japan’s best noise rock bands, but they have deep roots in New York City’s No Wave movement. Abandoning their band 3/3, vocalist/bass player Reck and saxophonist Chico Hige set out for the United States. where they formed Teenage Jesus and the Jerks with enfant terribles Lydia Lunch and James Chance, then became founding members of James Chance and the Contortions.

But who really wants to hang with the likes of Lydia Lunch and James Chance? There are limits to human endurance, and I can think of few things more queasy-making than being trapped in a windowless room with Lower East Side hypesters who take themselves far, far too seriously. Speaking solely for myself, I’d sooner spend my time nibbling on sponge cake with Jimmy Buffett. So Reck and Hige returned to the Land of the Rising Sun, changed their band name from 3/3 to Friction, and following some line-up changes went on to release some dozen LPs, if you include live albums and compilations.

Dumb Numb CD was recorded at Shibuya Club Quattro on September 10, 1989 and released the following year. Friction did away with Lunch’s hideous screech and Chance’s free jazz saxophone slobber to produce a sound that isn’t mutated, shard-fractured, atonal, or dissonant. In its place they substitute a straight-ahead, bass-pummeling approach that one might almost call traditional—your average listeners needn’t send their ears to reeducation camps to listen to this LP.

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Graded on a Curve: Lynyrd Skynyrd,
Nuthin’ Fancy

Celebrating Artimus Pyle, born on this day in 1948.Ed.

It is my unreconstituted thunk that Lynyrd Skynyrd is America’s second greatest rock’n’roll band, right behind the Velvet Underground. Hyperbole? Mebbe. But during the four short years before fate shot their airship down, the Southern rockers produced a veritable shitload of immortal (and yes smart) tunes that I, for one, have been listening to with pleasure for decades.

1975’s appropriately titled Nuthin’ Fancy isn’t the best Skynyrd LP out there. It may even be the worst of the five albums the original Lynyrd Skynyrd—which is the only Lynyrd Skynyrd that matters—recorded between 1973 and 1977. It lacks the sublime touches that make Skynyrd’s first and second albums rock landmarks, and the assortment of to-die-for songs (“That Smell,” “One More Time,” “All I Can Do Is Write About It”) scattered throughout the two LPs that came after it. The way I see it, Nuthin’ Fancy only boasts two songs—I’m talking about “Saturday Night Special” and “Am I Losin’”—that are truly indispensible.

The biggest problem lies in the songs, natch, and the problem with the songs is that they were written in a rush, in the studio between tours. I’ll stand Ronnie Van Zant up against any American songwriter (exceptin’ B. Dylan) ever, but when it came to Nuthin’ Fancy he simply didn’t have the same amount of time he’d had to write such immortal tunes as “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Tuesday’s Gone,” or “Simple Man” from 1973’s (Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd) and 1974’s Second Helping. (Indeed, he’d never again have the time to sit down and do some leisurely songwriting during his lifetime, which is why Lynyrd Skynyrd was never able to top the transcendental brilliance of its first two LPs.)

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Graded on a Curve: electric eels,
Die Electric Eels

Of the proto-punk bands that hailed from the city with the dullest football helmets in the world, only the Dead Boys, Pere Ubu, and Devo made much of an impression on listeners from the rest of the US. Simple parochialism certainly played its part; NYC’s callow sophisticates looked askance at them as yokels from a city no one cared about situated on a lake most of them couldn’t name. And they were hardly alone—when I googled Cleveland to find out what it’s chiefly famous for, one of the responses I got is “It’s not that big.”

But it’s the bands that generated zero excitement outside Cleveland that truly interest me—I’m talking Cinderella Backstreet, the Styrenes, Mirrors, and the art terrorists who made up the electric eels. The obscurity of both Mirrors and the electric eels is easily explained—each band released only one single during their tenures.

What’s more, the electric eels only played five gigs during their existence, for the simple reason that they terrified audiences and alienated club owners, who ultimately passed on booking a band that, according to the Dead Boys’ Stiv Bators, might take the stage with a gas-powered lawn mower. The electric eels looked forward to the violent and unpredictable antics of the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s Anton Newcombe—when they weren’t physically assaulting their audience the electric eels were physically assaulting one another, and when they weren’t physically assaulting one another you could be sure they weren’t in the club.

Some long-due appreciation finally came the electric eels’ way in the form of 2014’s Die Electric Eels. The songs on the compilation hail from the Velvet Underground/Stooges tradition, with some brain-damaged garage rock tossed in. The results are abrasive and sizzle like downed power lines; Die Electric Eels is equal parts attraction and repulsion, but if you like your music raw it’s a sure winner.

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Graded on a Curve: Jayne/Wayne County and the Electric Chairs, The Best of Jayne/Wayne County and the Electric Chairs

Celebrating Jayne County who turned 75 yesterday.Ed.

When it comes to the first wave of punk, Wayne (and later Jayne) County and the Electric Chairs are often sadly overlooked. And this despite such raunch’n’roll classics as “Toilet Love,” “Fuck Off,” and “Cream in My Jeans.” County, a Georgia transgender woman, combined glam punk with the sheer camp outrage of New York City’s Theater of the Ridiculous, and the results were both hilarious and irresistible. Yet none of the band’s albums were released in the United States, an inexplicable omission unless one concludes that U.S. record execs found County and the Electric Chairs’ songs simply too sleazy to touch.

County and the Electric Chairs were the biggest proponents of the trash rock aesthetic this side of the New York Dolls, but they took things much, much farther than the Dolls ever did. County might come on stage wearing a plastic vagina with straw pubic hair, and punk photographer Roberta Bayley recalls the time County, having decided (amongst many others, including Bayley) that Patti Smith’s “I’m the Second Coming of Arthur Rimbaud” shtick was so much pretentious horseshit, “did a big parody of her where he came on and he had a black wig and a white shirt, a tie and he did this whole thing about following one of Jim Morrison’s pubic hairs down the sewers of Paris.” If Jayne had never done anything but that, I’d still love her.

Subtle County wasn’t, but the Electric Chairs also released such bona fide trash-free classics as the celebratory “Max’s Kansas City,” the transgender anthem “Man Enough to Be a Woman,” and the most delirious song about wanting to have a number one hit since the Raspberries’ “Overnight Sensation” in “Trying to Get on the Radio.” And the best way to listen to the multi-faceted County is to pick up a copy of 1982’s Best of Jayne/Wayne County and the Electric Chairs, which includes all of the above songs as well as such searing rockers as “Bad in Bed,” “Hot Blood,” and “Night Time,” to say nothing of the lovely “Eddie & Sheena” and the Transformer-flavored “Midnight Pal.”

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Graded on a Curve: Nazareth,
Hair of the Dog

Remembering Manny Charlton.Ed.

The Scottish clods o’ peat in this hard-working, hard-rocking man’s man band never won any originality awards, and weren’t exactly well-versed in the songwriting arts either, and given their high scunge factor, I doubt they’d even be allowed into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as paying customers, much less as inductees.

They’re not going to be inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame anytime soon, either. Hell, they only hit two homers over the course of their long career, and their lifetime batting average is in the .233 range. Forget about Cooperstown; these guys would be lucky to earn a spot on the bench of the 1962 New York Mets.

But I’ll say this for ‘em–way back in 1975 every badass or wannabe badass in my home town was blaring Nazareth’s Hair of the Dog out of their car 8-track speakers, whether that car be a GTO or a rusted-out Ford Pinto. The title track–with its “Now you’re messin’ with a son of a bitch”–was a blast of pure unbridled belligerence and without a doubt the orneriest cut of the summer, hell the whole year probably. Alice Cooper may have put out “No More Mr. Nice Guy,” but that was play acting; Nazareth’s Dan McCafferty came on like the Real McCoy.

As for the album title, me and my buddies prided ourselves on knowing what it meant even though we’d never cracked a beer (much less suffered a hangover) in our lives–it made us feel adult, worldly even, just as that “Now you’re messin’ with a son of a bitch” made us feel tough, when in effect we were probably the wimpiest band of geeks to ever gingerly trod the halls of Littlestown High School, on the lookout for the real sons of bitches.

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Graded on a Curve:
Bon Jovi,
Slippery When Wet

Celebrating Richie Sambora, born on this day in 1959.Ed.

I’ve always considered Bon Jovi a disease–like kuru, say, only a helluva lot scarier. To contract kuru you have to live in New Guinea and eat contaminated human brains. You can contract Bon Jovi by turning on your car radio.

That said, I never–and I know I sound just like those people on TV commercials talking about horrible contractable diseases–thought it could strike me. I was certain I possessed the necessary modicum of native intelligence and impeccable musical taste to serve as a prophylaxis against Bon Jovi. I was sure it only afflicted those who in some way “deserved it.”

Then one day I was in the car with my girl and “Wanted Dead or Alive” came on the radio. And instead of throwing my arm out of joint in a python-quick lunge to turn the dial to another station like I’ve done hundreds of times before, I sat back in my seat and started singing along instead. And just that fast I was another victim. I had Bon Jovi.

We’ll talk more about how the disease spreads in a moment, but first let’s take a look at the disease itself. Jon Bon Jovi’s a kind of hybrid animal, a mediagenic mule–part unthinking man’s Bruce Springsteen and part hair metal satyr. Problem is he’s no Springsteen and too MOR to be a glam metal god, and you would think these would make him an unlikely candidate as a contractable disease.

Like Bruce he’s a New Jersey populist, but he lacks the Boss’ smarts and grit; if Springsteen’s spiritual hometown is Asbury Park, Jon’s is the Paramus Mall. And in comparison to your average glam metal sleazeball Bon Jovi comes off as the boy next door. Unlike Tommy Lee or Nikki Sixx, he would never slip your sister a mandrax or give her a dose of the syph; he’d have her home by 11 and your mom would love him.

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Graded on a Curve:
Peter Green,
The End of the Game

Peter Green’s guitar added the flash to Fleetwood Mac’s first four albums. Undoubtedly one of rock’s finest blues guitarists, and a superb vocalist and songwriter as well, Green attracted worshipers who believed it was he, and not Eric Clapton, who was God. Said blues legend B.B. King, “[Green] has the sweetest tone I ever heard; he was the only one who gave me the cold sweats.”

Then came his famous freak-out (which was almost certainly acid-induced) at a commune in Munich. He would later be diagnosed as schizophrenic, which goes far towards explaining his increasingly erratic behavior and the mental muddle that’s 1970’s The End of the Game. Gone was the Peter Green who wrote and leant blistering guitar and raw vocal emotional power to such songs as “Black Magic Woman,” “Rattlesnake Shake,” “Man of the World,” “Oh Well,” and “The Green Manalishi (With the Two Prong Crown).” In his place was an artist capable of producing an incoherent mess.

The End of the Game isn’t a collection of songs—it’s a mishmash of excerpts rearranged seeming at random from an instrumental jam session recorded only a month after Green drifted away from Fleetwood Mac. You have to wonder how the LP made it to record store shelves at all. If Green wasn’t thinking straight, the head honchos at Reprise Records weren’t thinking at all. I have this mental image of Reprise execs cornering the guy who approved the LP’s release in the second floor bathroom and beating him to death with their toupees.

You can call The End of the Game an experimental album, but that’s paying it too much of a compliment. Rather it’s the formless, amorphous result of a disordered mind. It’s as if Green had told his songwriting skills to pack their bags, then handed them one-way tickets to Barbados. He also handed them checks for very large sums of money, because they’d be there indefinitely.

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Graded on a Curve:
Paper Lace,
And Other Bits of Material / First Edition

How is it that an album containing both 1974 bubblegum classics “The Night Chicago Died” and that same year’s shlock anti-war anthem “Billy Don’t Be a Hero” makes for such an unlistenable listen? I’m talking about Paper Lace’s 1974 And Other Bits of Material, which would have inspired passengers on the Hindenburg to cheer when then airship exploded—a fiery death would have been infinitely preferable to listening to Paper Lace’s treacly cover of Les Paul and and Mary Ford’s jazzy 1953 hit “Bye Bye Blues.”

That “how” has an easy answer—like virtually every other bubblegum (or pseudo-bubblegum) act of the era, Paper Lace was looking for that one big score, and like virtually every other such band of the era, full-length LPs tended to be filler-packed afterthoughts—life-support systems for that overnight sensation. As it is, Paper Lace scored a pair of big ones, which raises the ghastly possibility that And Other Bits of Material might have been only half as good.

“The Night Chicago Died” is conspicuous by its absence from the 2001 book Bubblegum Music Is the Naked Truth, perhaps because it isn’t Simple Simon enough—it’s hard to blow bubbles to a song about mob boss Al Capone and 1929’s St. Valentine’s Massacre. But it was manna to kids like me—fun, catchy, and above it all made history fun. Sure, Paper Lace couldn’t get their facts straight (100 cops killed? Make that zero cops!), but it’s not as if they were under oath. Besides, who cared? Fuck the facts! Fuck history for that matter!

The bottom line was the damn song was a pop epic. That chorus is its biggest strength, but its genius lies in its details—the synthesizer mimicking a police siren at the song’s beginning, the way Phil Wright whispers the first stanza, the Oi!-like chants, and that “Nana naaa nana naaaa nana naaaa na naaaa” at song’s close will always gladden my heart. “The Night Chicago Died” puts you right there on the East side of Chicago, despite the fact there is no East side of Chicago. Paper Lace could have really used a fact checker.

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Graded on a Curve:
Men at Work,
Business as Usual

Celebrating Colin Hay, born on this day in 1953.Ed.

Say what you will about the Australian new wave outfit Men at Work—not only did they make the most famous sandwich in the history of rock’n’roll they made it out of vegemite to boot, which an Aussie fella in a restaurant not long ago told me is completely inedible and to be to be avoided at all costs unless you want your taste buds to sue for divorce.

Men at Work produced songs that were as unprepossessing as their name, were frequently jabbed at for sounding too much like the Police, and enjoyed their 15 minutes of fame at the dawn of the eighties. And if I have a mild case of affection for Men at Work while despising the Police it’s because Men at Work aren’t remotely as pretentious as the Police, although being less pretentious than the Police is child’s play. Or maybe I like them because their lead singer has a lazy eye, which made watching their videos on MTV more interesting.

Anyway, Men at Work’s 1982 LP Business as Usual went monolithic and brought in enough moolah to open a kangaroo ranch or two. And this despite the band’s tame and yes even docile exterior, about which no one has ever cried, “Men at Work got my baby!” No, Men at Work did not truck in fury and revolt but simply did their job of producing likeable songs that you can pet without losing your hand. And I for one am glad they did so, because despite being as non-threatening as your average koala, Business as Usual contains some songs I really like even if I am not likely to ever fight about them.

Let me correct that. I will fight for “Down Under,” which boasts a spritely flute, a catchy beat, and some of the weirdest lyrics you’ll ever hear. Why it oozes existential dis-ease, does “Down Under,” what with old lazy eye, or Colin Hay to you, tossing off such great lines as, “Traveling in a fried-out Kombi/On a hippie trail, head full of zombie/I met a strange lady, she made me nervous/She took me in and gave me breakfast.” I’ve spent hours mulling over these lyrics, and things only get weirder as the song goes on—we follow Hay to an opium den in Bombay, watch him get offered a vegemite sandwich by a circus strong man in Brussels, and all this time thunder is roiling and poor Hay is being told to run for cover.

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Graded on a Curve:
Billy Squier,
Absolute Hits

Video killed the radio star. Or so it went in the strange and dreadful case of eighties arena rocker Billy Squier, whose fortunes were firmly on the up and up when he released the controversial MTV video for “Rock Me Tonite.” And by controversial I don’t mean it was sexist, homophobic, or racist. No blind people walked into walls. It did not advocate human sacrifice or the clubbing to death of baby seals, and included no footage of Catholic nuns having sex with barnyard animals. No, it was simply so unintentionally hilarious it got Billy laughed straight out of his career.

To say Squier makes a fool of himself on “Rock Me Tonite” video is akin to calling the sinking of the Titanic a minor boating accident. It opens with Billy crawling out of bed, tousling his mop of curly hair, donning a pair of white drawstring pants and pulling on an unspeakably awful pink sleeveless T-shirt. He then proceeds to do things no human being should do in private, much less in front of a camera.

He dances (horribly), pouts his lips, flings what appear to be a pair of pink panties (where did they come from?) into the air, slithers across the floor, rolls onto his back and gyrates his hips like a cross between Gregor Samsa and Shakira in the “La Tortura” video, does some pretty good pole dancing, flaps his arms up and down like a gaudy rooster attempting to defy the laws of nature, and in general does a very bad parody of the aerobics dancers in Eric Prydz’s “Call on Me.”

And more’s the pity, because Squier, while a second tier rocker relegated to opening for bigger and better acts, produced a handful of songs worth a listen. He was certainly peddling the product. The albums prior to 1984’s Signs of Life (which spawned “Rock Me Tonite”) scored big—1981’s Don’t Say No and 1982’s Emotion in Motion went triple and double platinum respectively.

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Graded on a Curve:
Blue Öyster Cult,
Agents of Fortune

Remembering Allen Lanier in advance of his birthdate tomorrow.

When it comes to 1970s faux evil rock bands that didn’t have a bone of true evil in their bodies, Blue Öyster Cult comes in right behind Alice Cooper and Black Sabbath.

BÖC flirted shamelessly, tongues planted firmly in cheek, with the iconography of the dark side (they sang about S&M, made references to Martin Bormann and put Nazi jet fighters on their album covers, and let’s not forget the Patti Smith-penned “Career of Evil”) and people bought it until, like the previously mentioned bands, the boys from Long Island took it right over the top, and it became obvious that it was all a big joke and they were about as evil as Debbie Gibson.

But if it was all a shuck—and it was: even the rock critic Richard Meltzer, who wrote some of the band’s songs including “Burnin’ for You,” noted, “This is really hard rock comedy”—it led to some pretty great music, culminating Agents of Fortune, which was so wildly successful Robert Christgau dubbed BÖC “the Fleetwood Mac of heavy metal.”

Formed in 1967 as The Soft White Underbelly, the band subsequently changed its name to Oaxaca, then the Stalk-Forrest Group, then and the Santos Sisters before finally settling on Blue Öyster Cult in 1971. They were the first band to employ an umlaut in its name and came up with the most instantly recognizable band logo this side of Black Flag, and were guided step by step by manager Sandy Pearlman, who got them signed, wrote a lot of the band’s lyrics, helped produce their LPs, gave them their name, etc.

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Graded on a Curve: Fleetwood Mac,
Kiln House

Celebrating Mick Fleetwood on his 75th birthday.Ed.

Between their start as a standard English blues band and their apotheosis as perhaps the seventies best pop group, Fleetwood Mac wandered from style to style and sideman to sideman, and in so doing put out some very intriguing albums. 1970’s Kiln House is a fine example.

Guitarist Peter Green was out. Guitarist Jeremy Spencer was in, as was (kind of) Christine McVie, who provided backing vocals and wouldn’t be considered a full member until 1971’s Future Games. Bob Welch, Lindsey Buckingham, Stevie Nicks were all in the future.

Like the other LPs Fleetwood Mac would release during their middle period, Kiln House is a dizzyingly eclectic affair. You get a couple of rockabilly rave-ups, a country music parody, a very, very English folk rock instrumental, an engaging hard rocker in the vein of The Hollies’ “Long Cool Woman” (only gnarlier!), a couple of very likable folk rock ditties, and an inspired cover of “Buddy’s Song,” which is credited to Buddy Holly’s mom Ella but is basically “Peggy Sue Got Married” with new words.

Kiln House constitutes a loving backwards look at rock ’n’ roll’s past, and as such anticipated the “rock ’n’ roll revival” that would inspire albums by the likes of John Lennon, The Band, David Bowie and a whole slew of backwards-looking English glam bands.

Fleetwood Mac doesn’t quite follow through on the concept; songs like “Earl Gray” (the aforementioned instrumental), “One Together” (which could be a Neil Young tune), and “Station Man” (chug-a-lugging blues number with nice vocal harmonies and raucous guitar) are hardly R&R revival fare. And that goes double for the C&W send-up “Blood on the Floor,” on which Jeremy Spencer does an uncanny imitation of a woebegone hillbilly crying tears in his beer.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Grateful Dead, American Beauty

Remembering Robert Hunter, born on this day in 1941.Ed.

How many Deadheads does it take to change a light bulb? Six hundred and one. One to score the acid, and the other six hundred to stare slackjawed at the dead bulb and say, “Looks lit to me, man.” I know, it’s a shitty joke, but there’s some truth in it. The chief problem with Deadheads has always been their lack of quality control. They see no difference between 1970’s brilliant American Beauty and 1978’s execrable Shakedown Street, and lack the discernment to recognize that the light of creative genius that illuminated the Grateful Dead at the dawn of the seventies had long since flickered out by the time Jerry Garcia passed away in 1995.

Drug burn-out was the culprit, that and the natural order of the rock creativity; virtually no one continues to make great album after great album—shit, by my accounting, even Bob Dylan did his best work between 1965 and 1967, and that’s if you count The Basement Tapes, which weren’t released until years later. As for the Dead, I think they did their best work between 1969 and 1972, when they released the lackluster Wake of the Flood, which a true fan, Robert Christgau, described as “capturing that ruminative, seemingly aimless part of the concert when the boogiers nod out.” As for when their live concerts finally settled into equal parts boredom and cult worship, I have no opinion, although I will say that the three shows I saw in the eighties were perfunctory and the Dead appeared to wish they were somewhere else.

Ah, but at their best they were sublime. My personal favorite is 1970’s Workingman’s Dead, but that same year’s American Beauty is a close second. On both LPs the Dead abandoned their free-form extended jams (1969’s Live/Dead had two sides with one song on them, and one side with two songs on it) for real songs, and on both they proved that they had plenty of great four-minute songs in them. As for American Beauty, it was prettier than Workingman’s Dead—a folk-rock LP that eschewed the doom-laden songs on its predecessor for songs that were, for lack of a better phrase, sunnier and more pastoral. From opener “Box of Rain” to the lovely “Ripple,” Jerry Garcia and Company sing and play their way down the Golden Road of Everlasting Devotion, and even the diabolical “Friend of the Devil” and paranoid “Truckin’” are more friendly nods of the hat than Workingman’s Dead’s dark forebodings in the form of such songs as “Dire Wolf” and the Altamont-inspired “New Freeway Boogie.”

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Graded on a Curve:
Todd Rundgren, Something/Anything?

Celebrating Todd Rundgren, born on this day in 1948.Ed.

The words “studio genius” get flung about willy-nilly, but Todd Rundgren, the guy who gave us “Hello, It’s Me,” is the real thing. Oh, I know, his prog explorations with Utopia are largely unlistenable, but I would ask you to look at Exhibit A, the 1972 double LP Something/Anything?, as proof of his, er, geniusitude. It was one of the greatest gifts (along with Mott the Hoople’s All the Young Dudes and Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells a Story) my older brother bequeathed to me when he took off to see the country in the mid-seventies, and I loved (and played) it to death.

Studio savant that he is, Rundgren recorded three of the LP’s four sides all by himself, and brought in a gaggle of studio musicians, including Rick Derringer, Randy and Mike Brecker, Hunt and Tony Sales, and Ben Keith to record side four. All four sides have titles, which we needn’t worry about, and side four purports to be a “pop operetta,” to which I can only say okay, Todd, it’s your LP. The critic Robert Christgau said of Something/Anything?, “I don’t trust double albums” before changing tracks and saying, “But this has the feel of a pop masterpiece, and feel counts.” He’s right about double albums: some of the tunes on Something/Anything? do nothing for me and have the distinctive smell of filler. That said, there are more than enough timeless tunes on Something/Anything? to justify that other overused word, “masterpiece.”

Stirring ballads (“It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference”), dizzyingly marvelous power pop numbers ala The Raspberries (“Couldn’t I Just Tell You”), flat-out screamers (“Some Folks Is Ever Whiter Than Me”), great horn-driven hard rockers (“Slut”), Steely Dan soundalikes (“Piss Aaron”), utterly sublime pop confections (“Hello, It’s Me,” “I Saw the Light”) and oddball novelty tunes that nevertheless rock (“Wolfman Jack”)—that “anything” in the album’s title is Todd’s way of telling us he can do it all, and does.

Why, I didn’t even mention his soulful turns on the piano (“I Went to the Mirror,” “Torch Song”), maniacal metal contraptions (“Little Red Lights,” the big-hooked “Black Maria”), big, bad gospel- AND Steely Dan-tinged tunes (“Dust in the Wind”), ironic Harry Nilsson numbers (the happy-go-lucky sad song, “You Left Me Sore”), and brief lo-fi studio jams (“Overture—My Roots: Money (That’s What I Want)/Messin’ with the Kid”).

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Graded on a Curve:
The Kinks,
Muswell Hillbillies

Celebrating Ray Davies on his 78th birthday.Ed.

Ah, the Kinks. Of all the great bands to come out of England in the 1960s, they were by far the most English. Their music hall inclinations and deadpan irony simply didn’t translate, and until they reconstituted themselves as a hard-rocking touring band in the 1970s their only claims to fame here in the U.S.A. were “You Really Got Me” and “Lola.” Ray Davies was simply too smart, and had his tongue too far in his cheek, to win over U.S. fans, although I do remember—because it was, I think, the first 45 rpm record I ever heard—my older brother’s copy of “Apeman.” Nor did it help that the band was refused permits by the American Federation of Musicians to tour the U.S. for 4 years, ostensibly due to over-the-top on-stage band mate on band mate violence.

Of course, the Kinks always had their Kultists, people who lovingly cuddled their copies of 1968’s The Village Green Preservation Society the way you might your dog Blighter. As for the rest of us, we listened to our Beatles and our Stones and The Who, and the rest of England be damned. This was especially true if you were raised, the way I was, in a rural outpost of provincialism, where the Klan once marched through town and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” was considered the pinnacle of pop sophistication.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that I was a real latecomer to Ray Davies and Company, but have come to love their music, including Muswell Hillbillies. It’s one of the bleakest and funniest albums I know, and it deals with a subject that I hold near and dear to my heart—namely, the failure of everything. Tormented character follows tormented character on this LP, and I can’t get enough of it. Davies sings about paranoia, rampant alcoholism, and the myriad other complications of life, all from a working class perspective. Only Randy Newman could compete with Davies in the hilarious downer department, and while I prefer Newman, Davies more than holds his own.

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