Gave the People What They Had

Sometimes, the best new music is the best old music

A joke, of course, but the joke turned out to be on Davies: The very production techniques once intended to make the band sound current--heavy guitars, digital sheen, disco edits--now render these songs hopelessly dated; it's an effective reminder of why the words "arena rock" used to be an insult. Fortunately, it's also an occasional reminder of how a good song can overcome whatever handicaps a producer saddles it with. (Even if, as on all but one song here, the producer in question was the songwriter himself.) Ray screeches and solos his way through "Low Budget" like a bad Skynyrd parody, but there's no denying that chorus. "Come Dancing" no longer plays like the odious MTV staple it once was; age has turned its weightlessness into charm. Dancing even manages a six-song stretch--two each from Sleepwalker and Misfits, the irresistible "Do It Again," and the lovely "Better Things"--of unobtrusive production and peerless melody. In short, of vintage Ray Davies.

But while eight good songs in nine years might be a career for some bands, it's a slump for the man Pete Townshend once called the "only true and natural genius" of British rock. There's not a song on here you wouldn't trade for "Victoria" or "Sunny Afternoon" or "I'm Not Like Everybody Else"; in fact, you'd probably trade all 18 of these songs for one of those. The Arista years can't match the nadir that was Preservation Acts 1&2, but neither do they approach the apex of Arthur or Something Else or Village Green. Anyone who tells you otherwise obviously lacks refinement, tends toward the superficial, and cannot be trusted. That much is certain. (Keven McAlester)

Little Feat: Waiting for Lowell

Many rock historians (a rather portentous title for people who write about their favorite bands for a living, but what can you do?) tend to gravitate toward narrative extremes. Either the chronicle of a performer is a tale of unabashed triumph over a series of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, or it's a tragedy in which the subject's talent (and often the subject himself) withers and dies in the face of ignorance, misunderstanding, disloyalty, greed, substance abuse and/or the misalignment of the planets. But, Behind the Music to the contrary, the lives and careers of musicians, like the lives and careers of the rest of us, are seldom so easily explained--and Little Feat, the largely forgotten but once inspired major-label cult act celebrated in Hotcakes & Outtakes, a four-CD set just issued on the Warner Archives/Rhino imprint, is an apt example.

Stevie Wonder solidified his legend with three albums released in the span of just a few months.
Stevie Wonder solidified his legend with three albums released in the span of just a few months.
Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, released in 1982, may be more relevant now than it was in the shadow of Reagan.
Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, released in 1982, may be more relevant now than it was in the shadow of Reagan.

In the voluminous liner notes that accompany the new box, veteran journalist Bud Scoppa casts the combo in the most flattering light possible, portraying its founder and leader, Lowell George, as a shambling genius, his premature demise (of a 1979 heart attack likely spurred by accelerating obesity and his frequently advertised fondness for drugs) as the snuffing out of a star at its peak intensity, and his bandmates' eventual decision to carry on under the old name as proof that the outfit's magic could stand up to even the Grim Reaper's most lethal scythe work. Too bad the evidence presented on Hotcakes calls most of these contentions into question. George was indeed a unique and gifted performer, but these attributes were ultimately watered down by commercial considerations and a tendency toward giving in when he should have been standing fast.

His decision over time to cede more and more album space and authority to Feat cohorts Paul Barrère and Bill Payne--sporadically clever songwriters, yet not on George's level--was symptomatic not only of the pitfalls of musical democracy, but also of a more wide-ranging creative withdrawal that even afflicted Thanks I'll Eat It Here, the solo album George issued just after leaving Little Feat (and shortly before his death); its slack nature showed that the artistic shortfalls of his latter period couldn't all be pinned on a band that changed beneath him. Finally, the sounds made by the survivors, while marked by excellent musicianship and more intelligence than most of their fellow graybeards can manage, is light-years away from capturing what was best about Little Feat. It's heartening that they haven't surrendered, but it would be more so if their biggest accomplishment were something other than keeping up with those mortgage payments.

That's not to imply that the Little Feat story is somehow uninteresting or unworthy. Far from it: George churned out plenty of gems during his decade or so in the public eye, and the manner in which his work slowly declined says more about the dangers lurking beneath the seductive surface of the Los Angeles music scene during the 1970s than "Hotel California" ever could. He was able to check out--permanently--but only after making the sort of compromises that prevented him from becoming all he might have been. And as Hotcakes' highlights demonstrate, he might have been great.

George grew up an L.A. kid, and he was exceedingly familiar with the opposite poles of the city's musical environment: the sophisticated professionalism encouraged by the record companies based there and the anarchic vibe put out by those rebelling against the vapidity and superficiality of a culture based on celebrity worship. From the beginning, he kept feet in both camps, playing the flute in sessions for Frank Sinatra as a teen, only to later hook up with Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention, the antithesis of SoCal slick.

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