Author Archives: Michael H. Little

Graded on a Curve:
Gary Wright,
The Very Best of
Gary Wright

Celebrating Gary Wright on his 77th birthday.Ed.

Namaste, fellow seekers! And welcome back to the Vedic District and your host, Michael Paramahansa Yogananda Little! On this week’s turn of the cosmic wheel we’ll be discussing New Age seer and synthesizer-around-the-neck avatar Gary Wright, whose chakra-cleansing songs and mystical crystal revelations make him the most spiritually evolved being on our astral plane.

Wright was, arguably, pop’s first New Age musician. Forget George Harrison–who turned Wright on to Eastern religions while they were recording 1970’s All Things Must Pass–he refused to give up on rock and roll. And compared to Wright, Van Morrison and Stevie Nicks are mere earthbound materialists–the Bertrand Russell and Ayn Rands of rock, respectively.

It’s all there on the cover of The Dream Weaver, where a blissed-out Wright rests his head against what is either a telepod to other dimensions or the Findhorn Community’s very own jukebox–the man was staking his claim as the first New Age technocrat, enlisting the aid of machines to further the cause of the Harmonic Convergence.

And, boy, did Wright make a splash. Who, my fellow theosophists, can forget the Annus Mirabilis 1976, when a cosmic convergence brought us both David Spangler’s book Revelation: The Birth of a New Age and Wright’s June 11th appearance on The Midnight Special, where he cast a magickal sorcerer’s spell on an entire nation with his mesmerizing performance of “Dream Weaver”? Surely the stars were coming into alignment at last, and the Age of the Enlightened Unicorn was nigh.

Of course that exalted age never arrived, nor did Wright’s success last. But if the former Spooky Tooth keyboardist’s fleshly fame was fleeting, he has accepted it with Buddhistic resignation–having parted the veil of Maya, he knows all too well that all we are is dust in the wind. Yet he continues to mould a new reality closer to the heart with his ecstatic ectoplasmic musical emanations, which make the ideal accompaniment to both Kundalini awakening and sweatless tantric sex.

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Graded on a Curve:
Styx, The Best of
Styx: The Millennium Collection

As any music critic with good taste and intelligence will tell you, Styx was one shitty progressive rock band. But, and this is important, for those (like me for example) who came of age in the late 1970s, Styx was the only progressive rock band that mattered.

While Keith Emerson was off writing his piano concerto (see Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s 1977 magnum dopus Works Volume 1), Yes was boring the bejesus out of us with 1973’s interminable Tales of Topographic Oceans and Renaissance was making us nostalgic for the Middle Ages, Styx was producing easily accessible pop prog for the masses. Their populism–which they embraced after their very proggy 1972 eponymous debut–eschewed elitism, bombast and instrumental virtuosity for its own sake, which is hardly surprising given they hailed from a Midwest city famous for its hot dogs.

Millions of kids listened to ELP’s adaptations of classical works by the likes of Modest Mussorgsky and Alberto Ginastera–theirs was head music of a sort, and it made their listeners feel smart. But teens could hardly relate to such music, seeing as how it failed to touch on the realities of working dead end jobs, getting stoned, looking for girls, and getting their hands dirty in the engines of their hand-me-down 1971 Plymouth Dusters.  Even the mythical enchantress Lorelei in Styx’s song of the same name is a flesh and blood, ready-to-put-out girl: “I call her on the telephone, she says be there by eight/Tonight’s the night she’s movin’ in/And I can hardly wait.” One shudders to think what unspeakable things ELP might have done with a song with that title.

Which brings us to 2001’a The Best of Styx: The Millennium Collection. It includes every song a casual Styx fan will want to own and plenty of other Styx songs your average person won’t want to own. What this compilation mainly proves is that Styx was a mediocre band that produced a couple of iconic songs that–along with the likes of Kansas’s “Dust in the Wind”–defined an era.

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Graded on a Curve:
Glen Campbell,
See You There

Remembering Glen Campbell on the day of his birth.Ed.

The English Pre-Raphaelite poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti once wrote, “Each hour flings a bomb at my burning soul.” Before adding, “Neither from owl nor from bat can peace be gained until I clasp my wombat.” I admit to being completely flummoxed by what this Rossetti chap means by “his wombat.” Did he have, in his personal menagerie, an actual wombat? One that he clasped to his troubled bosom when bombs were being catapulted at his burning soul? Your guess as is good as mine.

But I digress. The point I’m trying to make, albeit in a hopelessly circuitous way, is that my soul too has been burning of late, and I don’t see a wombat in sight. I have a cat, but when I attempt to clasp him to my bosom he is immediately transformed into a furious blur of tooth and claw. So I ask myself; how best can I regain my peace? And the answer, stated as succinctly as possible, is Glen Campbell.

The odd thing is that despite the fact that I grew up in a rural backwater, in a town so small that the “Welcome to Littlestown” sign and the “You Are Now Leaving Littlestown” sign were the same sign and many of my fellow townspeople made those toothless rustics in Deliverance look like cosmopolitan sophisticates, the only country music I ever heard came to me via Hee Haw, which I would occasionally watch with the old man. That said, I totally loved “Rhinestone Cowboy.” It fell into the rarified genre of glam country, and I could never hear it often enough. That said, I’d never heard any of his other songs and was never tempted to buy a G.C. LP.

When I finally got around to listening to him as an adult, and happened upon such immortal songs as “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” and “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” I’ll admit I was disappointed. The string-heavy arrangements turned these great numbers to treacle. Distracted from the songs’ greatness, they did. Which I why I was thrilled to discover Campbell’s final studio LP (he’s still with us, but in the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease), 2013’s See You There.

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Graded on a Curve:
Iggy Pop, The Idiot

Celebrating Iggy Pop on his 74th birthday.Ed.

David Bowie was a great artist, but he was also an appropriator and opportunist, and was not above exploiting his friends to achieve his own goals. Take Iggy Pop. Pop had been floundering since the Stooges dissolved, and found himself in Berlin with Bowie who, like Pop, was trying to fight both his drug demons and find his way to a new sound, which would emerge in 1977’s Low. But before Low he produced Pop, as much out of self-interest as friendship. As he would say later, “Poor Jim, in a way, became a guinea pig for what I wanted to do with sound.”

Fortunately for Pop, their creative collaboration—for their sessions were much, much more than Bowie’s simply using Pop as a laboratory animal for musical experimentation—resulted in 1977’s The Idiot, a work of genius and a radical departure from Pop’s frankly self-destructive proto-punk with the Stooges. Indeed, it was so radical it skipped punk entirely, and disappointed plenty of people who thought Pop should have been taking advantage of a sound and attitude he had helped to foment.

The Idiot would have been unthinkable to anyone familiar with Pop’s previous personae as rock’s wildebeest, who flung himself about to the frenetic roar produced by the Stooges, seemingly oblivious to the physical and psychic damage he was inflicting upon himself. On The Idiot, the roar of guitars was replaced by a funky and robotic foray into more Apollonian territory, with Pop singing over Kraftwerk-flavored art rock, quieter tunes some with Gothic overtones, and even proto-industrial electronica.

Most of its songs would be celebrated by proponents of the various genres of post-punk, demonstrating conclusively just how far ahead of its time it was. On a bummer of a note, it was even the soundtrack to Joy Division singer Ian Curtis’ suicide, as it was found spinning in the room where Curtis hanged himself.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Cure,
Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me

Celebrating Robert Smith on his 62nd birthday.Ed.

How close-minded am I? I’ll tell you. When my girlfriend asked me about The Cure I told her I wasn’t really familiar with much more than their megahits. When she went on to suggest I’d like them, I told her, “Sure, about as much as I’d like to have railroad spikes driven into my eyes.”

But love is blind—having railroad spikes driven into your eyes will do that—so I agreed solely on her behalf to give the legendarily mopey Robert Smith, who has always struck me as Morrissey minus the saving sense of ironic wit—and Company a listen. And gosh darn it if I didn’t find I liked them. They weren’t the unremitting bummer I expected, which I should have known from having heard the great “Just Like Heaven” and “Friday I’m in Love.”

Sure, Smith can be a downer. But the Cure weren’t just jauntier than I anticipated; they were also tougher. The introspective Smith may be the least likely pugilist this side of Brian Eno, but his braggadocio on “Fight,” the closing cut of 1987’s double LP Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me, proves he knows his way around a pair of brass knuckles. The same goes for the king snake of a tune that is “The Snake Pit,” a savage and ponderous drone of a tune that will slither right off the stereo and bite you, as well as for the guitar-heavy opening cut “The Kiss,” on which Smith spits bile and vitriol, mostly to the effect of “I wish you were dead.” Which rhymes wonderfully with “Get your fucking voice out of my head.”

As I mentioned, Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me is a double LP, and like most double albums contains its share of filler. Like the “funky” “Hot Hot Hot!!!,” which one critic cryptically labeled “a tragedy of trenchfoot” before concluding that even he knew Smith has “better stuff hidden in that mop of his.” Meanwhile, the vaguely Indian-tinged “Like Cockatoos” is a bore, while the exotic drums and sax of “Icing Sugar” promise much but fail to deliver. As for “Torture” it’s aptly named, and not even its big drug thump and all Smith’s warbling and wailing can hide its lack of a catchy melody.

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Graded on a Curve:
Humble Pie,
Smokin’

Remembering Steve Marriott on the date of his passing.Ed.

I have an unwholesome relationship with Humble Pie. It may not be as unsavory as my obsession with the impossibly déclassé Grand Funk Railroad, but still. The fact is I return again and again to Steve Marriott and Humble Pie’s refried boogie like a dog chained to its vomit, seeking in vain to be sanctified. And occasionally—as on such songs as “Beckton Dumps” and “Shut Up and Don’t Interrupt Me” off 1973’ live Eat It LP—I am. But all too often—and believe me when I say I keep trying—I’m left wondering how the electrifying former frontman of the Small Faces went so wrong when the regular-sized Faces went so right.

The answer lies, I think, in the fact that while the Faces played ‘em fast and loose with an irrepressible spirit of camaraderie and fun, Marriott—who certainly had the pipes to pull it off—wanted desperately to be a testifyin’ boogie man. While Rod the Mod and Company were getting soused on stage and having fun, serious Steve was rewriting Ike and Tina Turner’s “Black Coffee” to make clear that his skin was white but his soul was black. And unlike the Faces, who had a deceptively light touch, Marriott opted to go—for the most part at least—the hard blues route.

Finally, Marriott liked to stretch ‘em out live—it gave him more time to testify, brothers and sisters—as is evident on 1971’s Performance: Rockin’ the Fillmore. None of these things have helped Marriott’s posterity—everybody loves the Faces, but Humble Pie is more of a footnote and acquired taste for the kinds of tossers drawn to the Brit Blues likes of Savoy Brown, Blodwyn Pig, and the Groundhogs.

Yet I continue to turn to Humble Pie, attracted by Marriott’s astounding vocals, mean guitar work, and occasional ability to come up with a song that boogies as hard as the soulful “30 Days in the Hole” off 1972’s Smokin’, which demonstrates that Marriott had at least one borderline excellent boogie record in him. It was the song that would help make Smokin’ Humble Pie’s highest charting LP ever, and it’s a riff’n’roll triumph with lots of great vocals, some great bass by Greg Ridley, and the imaginative drumming of young Jerry Shirley.

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Graded on a Curve:
Happy Mondays,
Greatest Hits

Celebrating Bez who turned 57 last Sunday, 4/18.Ed.

A crash course for the ravers—back in the late 1980s, Happy Mondays became the veritable house band for Madchester’s e-fueled rave scene, which transformed an entire generation of Joe Bloggs-clad English kids into pinwheel-eyed, whizz-happy 24-hour party people stepping on and up, up, up to a dizzying sound composed of equal parts alternative rock, acid house, funk, and psychedelia.

Oh, it was a glorious time, a true Renaissance as it were. I’d have loved to be there when the party started, and every blessed baggy-jeans wearing ecstasy-altered geezer at the Haçienda loved every other baggy-jeans wearing ecstasy-altered geezer at the Haçienda. And every single one of them knew the song—which just happened to be the Happy Monday’s deliriously danceable “Step On,” with its infectious keyboard progression and funky drumming—would go on forever.

It didn’t of course—I strongly recommend Pulp’s “Sorted for e’s and Whizz” if you’re looking for a post-mortem—and Happy Mondays crashed as hard, or harder, than anybody else, having gone “crack crazy” (in guitarist Paul Ryder’s words) in Barbados during the sessions that would culminate in 1992’s Yes Please! But you can still hear the joy of being young and very, very chemically altered in every song on Happy Monday’s 1999 Greatest Hits.

On such immortal ravers as “Step On,” “Kinky Afro,” “Loose Fit,” “Mad Cyril,” and “24-Hour Party People” brothers Shaun and Paul Ryder and Company (including of course, the band’s official “dancer” Bez) kept the punters soaring above the dance floor all night long. It’s all there in “Kinky Afro”—Brit pop melded smoothly to a seductive groove—and “Loose Fit,” the definitive baggy anthem and Madchester fashion manifesto, which fuses funky percussion to a lovely riff and a message (“Don’t need no tight fits in my wardrobe today”) that put a sizeable segment of England’s youth in flares.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Darkness,
Permission to Land

Glam never dies. It predated David Bowie, Marc Bolan, and the New York Dolls, and its tradition has been carried on by the likes of Destroyer and, most importantly, Lady Gaga. But during the eighties Glam became associated with metal bands whose only claim to genre lay in the fact they wore make-up. The likes of Poison, Ratt, and Skid Row all have their attraction, but Glam they most definitely they ain’t.

England’s The Darkness are the real thing. They have musical similarities to eighties Glam metal, but they understand that Glam is an attitude, a pose, a way of looking at life. Fey, androgynous, witty, artificial, decidedly un-macho and essentially frivolous, glitter rockers adhere to that most famous of dandies Oscar Wilde’s famous credo, “Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about.”

And on their 2003 debut Permission to Land The Darkness stand up for that greatest of human endeavors–going pink flamingo flamboyant and having an ostrich feather lark while doing it. The Darkness’s name may well be an inside joke, because there’s absolutely nothing dark about them.

The Darkness stand apart from the pack on the quality of their music alone, but what really makes them one of Glam’s shinier gifts to the glamkind is lead vocalist and guitarist Justin Hawkins’ voice, which is so campy and outrageous he makes Freddy Mercury sound like Hoyt Axton. I invite you to listen to the way he goes for the high notes, stutters and positively warbles his way through the band’s big one, “I Believe in a Thing Called Love.” Hawkins goes for baroque every time he opens his mouth.

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Graded on a Curve:
Poco,
Pickin’ Up the Pieces

Remembering Rusty Young, Poco co-founder, with a look back via our archives from just last month.Ed.

Can I be honest? I chose to review Poco’s 1969 debut Pickin’ Up the Pieces based solely on its cover. Sure it’s an excellent LP and pioneering work of country rock, but it’s the cover that truly matters to me because there’s a great story behind it. So here goes.

Seems bassist Randy Meisner–who would shortly thereafter become a founding member of the Eagles–quit the band in a royal snit after Richie Furay and Jim Messina (both formerly of Buffalo Springfield) excluded him from participating in the album’s final mix. This left Poco in a rather awkward position when it came to the painting of the band’s members meant to grace the album cover. Poco might have done any number of things to remedy this situation, the most obvious and simple one being to scrap the cover and come up with a new one. Instead they opted to air brush poor Randy from the cover Josef Stalin style–and replace him with a dog.

I’ve done a bit of research on said pooch, and he’s rather a mystery. I’ve had no luck contacting him through my many musician and record company connections, and I could find no evidence that he was paid for his role as stand-in. Nor was I able to determine if he actually played on the album. I hear no barking, which isn’t to say they buried him way back in the vocal mix. He may also have played bass. Should you happen to run into him tell him to give me a ring. I’d love to know how he’s doing.

Pickin’ Up the Pieces is often placed alongside The Byrds 1968 LP Sweetheart of the Rodeo as a seminal work of what would soon become known as country rock, but there are critical differences between the two. Sweetheart of the Rodeo included only two Byrds’ originals; Pickin’ Up the Pieces is composed solely of Poco originals. The Byrds sought inspiration from the past, paying homage to their country forebears, and it lends their music an old-timely hillbilly sound. Poco, on the other hand, were looking forward to a future that would include such studio slicks as the Eagles and Pure Prairie League.

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Graded on a Curve: Gordon Lightfoot,
An Introduction to Gordon Lightfoot

Robbie Robertson has called Canadian folk rock singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot “a national treasure,” and so he is. Canadians don’t just love their Orillia, Ontario native son, they worship him in temples that can only be entered by pilgrims clad in the holy sandals Gord wore on the cover of his 1974 LP Sundown.

And their devotion is understandable–Lightfoot has contributed many a timeless song to the world, and none other than Bob Dylan has gone on record saying that when he hears a Lightfoot song he wishes “it would last forever.”

Lightfoot wrote many a great song from 1965 to 1970 with United Artists, including “Early Morning Rain,” “Ribbon of Darkness,” and “Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” to name just a few. But he recorded his best known work for Warner/Reprise Records, with whom he signed in 1970. And it’s this work you’ll hear on 2018’s aptly titled compilation An Introduction to Gordon Lightfoot.

There are other Lightfoot compilations out there, but they either include music only your hardcore fans will want to own (see 1999’s Songbook or 2019’s The Complete Singles 1970–1980). 1975’s Gord’s Gold is arguably the best comp out there, including as it does material from both his United Artists and Warner Brothers years, but it omits “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” (inexcusable!) and (even more inexcusable!) includes re-recordings of the songs from Lightfoot’s years with United Artists.

All ten of the tracks on An Introduction to Gordon Lightfoot provide indisputable proof that Lightfoot is the best singer-songwriter to stand his ground in Canada (Neil and Joni and Robbie defected and never looked back), and if you’re inclined to argue this fact with the peace-loving Canucks of the Great White North they might just crown you with a hockey stick and toss you into Lake Ontario.

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Graded on a Curve: Radiohead,
Kid A

Celebrating Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien on his 53rd birthday.Ed.

Not long after Radiohead released 2000’s Kid A, my friend Patrick and I gave it a scathing review without having actually listened to it, on the basis that its only appeal was to depressives better served by listening to the Archies. We also surmised that if Thom Yorke was such a creep why bother, because who wants to hang out with a creep? And seems we weren’t alone. Author Nick Hornby lambasted Kid A, and a critic for England’s Melody Maker dismissed it as “tubby, ostentatious, self-congratulatory, look-ma-I-can-suck-my-own-cock whiny old rubbish.” You won’t hear that sort of language on The Crown.

It was the Melody Maker review that finally convinced me to give Kid A a listen–if the the damn thing was really that bad, I wasn’t going to miss out on the opportunity to pile on. But Kid A isn’t the space age fiasco I’d hoped for; its Pink Floyd/Brian Eno vibe make it the perfect accompaniment to a hard day over a hot bong. Your more active types, on the other hand, risk drowning in its ambient ooze. That sound you hear off in the distance is a non-fan, crying out hopelessly for a lifeguard.

The band itself was split over Kid A’s new direction; vocalist/songwriter Thom Yorke went into the studio convinced rock music had “run its course,” while guitarist/keyboardist Jonny Greenwood and bass player Colin Greenwood worried that they risked producing “awful art-rock nonsense just for its own sake.” Yorke was full of it–folks have been writing rock’s obituary since the early 1960s. The Greenwoods were wrong as well–Kid A may not be my cup of studio overkill, but it’s a noble foray into the realms of electronica that works, at least in parts, very well indeed.

Dreamy atmospherics abound, and on occasion Radiohead take things too far. The soundscape that is “Treefingers” is a limpid pool of nothing special, and if Yorke thinks he’s breaking new sonic ground he’s dead wrong; David Bowie was doing this sort of thing in the late seventies. The title track is a trifle livelier thanks to its snazzy drum beat and electronic squiggles, but Yorke’s distorted vocals serve only to annoy, and the big bass thump at the end of the song is too little too late.

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Graded on a Curve:
Deep Purple,
Machine Head

Celebrating Ritchie Blackmore on his 76th birthday.Ed.

If I’ve never come forward publicly about the indelible mark I made on rock history at the Montreux 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 Montreux 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 Montreux 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 Montreux, 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:
Little Feat,
Little Feat

Celebrating Lowell George on the day of his birth.Ed.

Little Feat’s eponymous 1971 debut may not have changed the world, but to those who were listening it must have come as a revelation–here were four guys, two of ‘em Mothers of Invention alums, boldly staking their claim (and a decent claim it was) as America’s very own Rolling Stones. Not bad for a first outing.

Fronted by guitarist/vocalist and native Angeleno Lowell George–who with his gutbucket growl was the youngest white old black bluesman ever to graduate from Hollywood High School–Little Feat laid it on the line on their first LP. You get lysergic blues, trucker toons, some Sticky Fingers-school country honk–these guys took Gram Parsons’ concept of Cosmic American Music and ran with it. This is edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold music, the sound of the Mississippi Delta on hallucinogens–a mythical collaboration between Don Van Vliet, Dave Dudley, Mick & Keith, ZZ Top, Slim Harpo, and Harpo Marx.

Robert Christgau opined that these guys could “pass for” the Band, but he’s fulla shit. The Band always held things in check; they were as tightly wound as a clock, and clocks aren’t in the business of howling. They never hit as berserk a note as the Feat do on “Hamburger Midnight,” and there’s simply no mistaking the very agitated freak looking for safe harbor in “Strawberry Flats” to Levon Helm’s resigned drifter looking for a place to lay his head in “The Weight.” And the Americana-loving Robbie Robertson never could have come up with as song as bizarrely lovely as “Brides of Jesus,” which is set where exactly? In Lowell George’s LSD-scrambled mind?

No, the early Little Feat was a freak’s dream’s come true. Just check out the sorta Captain Beefheart-esque “Hamburger Midnight,” on which George plays some truly frenzied slide guitar and delivers the most unhinged performance of his career. Or “Strawberry Flats,” wherein poor Lowell (who’s been “ripped off and run out of town”) knocks on a friend’s door in search of succor only to discover: “His hair was cut off and he was wearing a suit/And he said not in my house, not in my house/”You look like you’re part of a conspiracy.”

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Graded on a Curve:
The Power Station,
The Power Station

Terrible things transpired in 1985. Starship’s “We Built This City” and “We Are the World” were unleashed on a hapless public causing a mass panic not seen since the radio broadcast of Orson Welles’ “The War of the Worlds.” I personally witnessed people leaping from third-story windows to escape both songs. Fortunately most of them landed in shrubbery.

Another horrible event occurred in 1985, although it tended to be overlooked in the general pandemonium. The “stuporgroup” Power Station released its eponymous debut LP, and while its mediocrity didn’t cause people to throw themselves off buildings, it did stultify them to the point of near catatonia. Cases of clinical depression rose by 15 percent in 1985, and psychiatrists credited Power Station for many of them.

A band made up of long-time gadfly Robert “Addicted to Love” Palmer, guitarist Andy and bassist John Taylor of Duran Duran, and Chic drummer Tony Thompson were no more a supergroup than Asia. But there was ample reason to believe they might make good music together. Unfortunately they had certain… shortcomings, shortcomings that led most intelligent human beings to give them a wide berth. Allow me to mention them in passing so as to get this unsavory task over with as fast as humanly possible.

First and foremost there’s the generic quotient. These songs are your standard eighties MOR fare and won’t win any personality contests–think Foreigner gone New Wave. And the band–with the exception of guitarist Andy Taylor–comes up short in the charisma department. The booming rhythm section lives up to the band’s name, but its sound is far from unique–that programmed drum beat runs through the mid-eighties like a flesh-eating virus.

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Graded on a Curve:
The Hold Steady,
Boys and Girls in America

The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn is the Poet Laureate of America’s post-teenage wasteland. He also happens to be the second coming of Bruce Springsteen. Oh, and I’m betting he owns the bigger collection of classic rock albums in his neighborhood. And on 2016’s Boys and Girls in America Finn does what he does best–sings about fucked-up kids doing fucked-up things while fucked up. They get fucked up at proms, killer parties and all-ages hardcore shows, and sometimes they get so fucked up they end up in hospitals and the chillout tents at rock festivals.

The Hold Steady’s oversized hard rock gives you the impression punk never happened–never mind the Sex Pistols, here come The Hold Steady. The band’s big sound dates back to Springsteen’s“Born to Run,” and The Hold Steady don’t try to hide his influence. Springsteen is also the obvious comparison when it comes to subject matter, but while the Boss of Born to Run went in for mythopoeic anthems about symbolic characters attempting to escape the swampland of New Jersey, The Hold Steady offer up detailed and anything but inspirational tales about real kids with real names (many of whom show up from song to song) looking less to escape their hometowns (Minneapolis Minnesota being the most often mentioned) but themselves. No myths and anthems for these guys.

The Hold Steady spell out the album’s theme on opening track “Stuck Between Stations,” which begins with the lines “There are nights when I think Sal Paradise [Jack Kerouac’s alter ego in On the Road] was right/Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together.” “Stuck Between Station” sets the LP’s musical tone as well, what with its big sound, megaton guitar riff and Franz Nicolay’s keyboards, which bring to mind the E Street Band’s Roy Bittan. And over it all you get Finn’s gruff and blustery talk-sing; he sounds like a big guy who can push you around, but in real life he wears glasses.

“Stuck Between Stations” is a template for what follows. “Chips Ahoy” is ostensibly about a woman who knows how to pick her horses, but its real subject is unbridgeable emotional distance: “How am I supposed to know that you’re high,” sings Finn, “if you won’t let me touch you?” The very Thin Lizzy “Hot Soft Light” is about a guy in an unstated legal predicament who lays out one very unconvincing alibi; he couldn’t have done it, it seems, because “I’ve been straight since the Cinco de Mayo/But before that I was blotto/I was blacked out/I was cracked out/I was caved in/You should have seen all these portals that I’ve powered up in.”

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