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

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

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

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

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

“Perfect Imperfection” is a bland and mellow slice of blue-eyed soul that might as well have been written for Michael McDonald. Payne jazz rocks all over the thing, and the results are a classic example of El Lay Studio Slick. Talking about your lack of edges; this one might as well be a softball. George acquits himself on vocals, but even at his best he couldn’t save this remarkably unremarkable piece of very quotidian pop craft, which wouldn’t even stand out on an Andrew Gold album.

The George-penned “Kokomo” constitutes a slight contribution to his canon; it’s good, no doubt about it, but it just doesn’t knock my socks off the way his earlier songs do. As for “Be One Now,” it’s a so-so ballad that would sound right at home on a mid-seventies James Taylor LP, and who thought Lowell George would ever come to this? It’s all synthesizered up, the guitars are cloyingly pretty, and in general the treacle factor is high enough to make me gag. If this was a desperate shot at the pop charts it failed, and if this wasn’t a desperate shot at the pop charts what was it?

Side two is a complete loss, a veritable shitstorm of AOR suck that puts Little Feat right in the middle of the bland pack of hard-to-tell-apart bands then ruling the airwaves. But just like “Be One Now” none of these songs made it to the radio, which should tell you something; namely, that Little Feat’s product was undistinguished even by Doobie Brothers standards.

The George-Payne-penned “Straight from the Heart” is a straight-up pop tune that lacks both spark and heart; it’s mildly catchy, for sure, but when all is said and done it’s one very faceless boogie. “Straight from the Heart” my ass; this one should have been called “Straight for the Mainstream,” and if you can’t blame ‘em (gotta pay the bills) you can still wish they’d put some more funk into their swimming. And if “Straight from the Heart” is saddening, “Front Page News” is downright demoralizing. It comes on like a Stones song, but quickly takes a homogenized turn towards the lower echelons of the American Top 40. Imagine, if you can, a rather lackluster take on .38 Special’s rather lackluster “Hold on Loosely.” This one isn’t front page news; it belongs amongst the obituaries.

“Wake Up Dreaming” is another creative nadir with a little bit of everybody in it; I hear the later, lesser Doobie Brothers, touches of the later, lesser Steely Dan (in the instrumental parts), and lots of other bands I don’t want to think about. Little Feat was always one of America’s most intriguing hybrid bands, but on “Wake Up Dreaming” they abandon originality and end up sounding like Toto. Or perhaps it would be better to say originality abandoned them, for this is the sound of a band that has lost its muse.

As for the reprehensible “Feel the Groove” it begins life as a Supertramp song, then lurches briefly into Doobies and Steely Dan territory before finally devolving into the least funky funk song I’ve ever heard. Why is it that this homogenized feel-good boogie wannabe makes me feel so very, very bad? I listen to it and then I listen to a song like “Spanish Moon” and I want to weep.

The ultimate irony of Down on the Farm is that it’s less a jazz fusion LP than the previous year’s Time Loves a Hero; there’s nothing 1/10th as abominable as the sub-Weather Report instrumental “Day at the Dog Races” on it. But at least Time Loves a Hero has the gumption to blow spectacularly. The joyless (and soulless) Down on the Farm just blows bubbles before sinking into faceless anonymity. A great band should never go out like this.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C-
(Upped a half-grade for its lack of anything as horrific as “Day at the Dog Races.”)

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