Monday, April 29, 2013

Iggy and the Stooges' "Ready To Die": Twilight of the gods?

This one's just for the fans.

By which I mean, if you're new to the Stooges, don't buy this record. Instead, buy Funhouse, then The Stooges, then Raw Power.

If you've already got those, plus Metallic K.O., Kill City, all those quasi-legit James Williamson-era recordings on Revenge/Bomp/Easy Action, maybe even Rhino's Funhouse box set and Live At Ungano's, Easy Action's A Thousand Lights and You Want My Action, and especially the post-reunion audio and video artifacts, pull up a chair. Because if you're a dyed-in-the-wool Stooge obsessive, you're probably still dubious after the disappointment that was The Weirdness, and wondering whether this'll be worth it.

I feel you. I was there, too. I tried hard as hell to like The Weirdness, wrote a highest-rating review of it for the I-94 Bar, even learned a song from it that the Stooges cover band I used to play in performed a couple of times before we realized there was a shit-ton of material we liked playing better than "My Idea of Fun." But I've never been motivated to listen to it since then, not even once. That album is not a fitting epitaph for Ron Asheton. But now there is one; I'll get to that in a minute.

But first, realize that this is a whole different band than the one that made The Weirdness. Ron was the greatest at playing a certain type of bare-bones fundamental psychedelic blues-based rock guitar, which he perfected in the spring of 1970, and the songs that he and Iggy cooked up for the first two albums encapsulate the anomie of young 'Meercuns better than anything since Eddie Cochran. That said, Ron's track record post-Stooges was somewhat less than stellar (slight exception: New Race, but that was just for two weeks in Orstralia).

The partnership between James Williamson and Iggy was more long-lived and fecund, including Kill City and New Values, my pick for the last good Iggy album prior to the Oh-ohs' Stooge renaissance. James is a more developed songwriter than Ron, although you couldn't always tell on Raw Power. The fact that the lion's share of the material he and Iggy wrote for the Stooges wasn't released until after the band's '74 implosion has forced fans to listen to Williamson-era Stooges the way Paul Williams listens to Bob Dylan. That is, since no "official" release exists, one is forced to become attuned to nuances of performance between the myriad bootleg versions.

Indeed, some of us were hoping that with Williamson back in the fold, Ig 'n' James would pull a maneuver similar to what Rocket From the Tombs did with Rocket Redux before David Thomas broke terminally bad with Cheetah Chrome -- e.g., laying down the old repertoire with contemporary studio sonics. But boy, did we have something else coming.

Because in the same way that the Stooges never played "old shit" back in the day -- by the time you caught 'em live, they were playing a whole new set from the one you expected based on the current record -- so they went into this project determined to prove that they weren't just reliving former glories and counting the money. Rather, Iggy insisted, they're a real band with something to say in 2013.

On the basis of the first couple of spins, I'd say he wasn't bullshitting. Most crucially, the retired Sony VP behind the cherry sunburst Les Paul doesn't sound like he's lost a step since he walked out of the Soldier sessions wa-a-y back in 1980. James has grown as a musician in ways that Ron, bless him, never did, developing an interest in Hawaiian slack-key guitar, among other things. His guitar style remains equal parts propulsive chording a la Keef Richards and jagged-edged soloing, steeped in the mid-'60s masterwork of Jeff Beck and Mike Bloomfield.

More to the point, Williamson's more into the craft of songwriting; besides writing rockers with more chords than anybody's this side of Blue Oyster Cult, his slow songs like "Johanna," the "St. James Infirmary" rewrite "I Need Somebody," and maybe best of all, "Open Up and Bleed," were the most complete expression of the '72-'74 Stooges' psychodrama. While there's nothing here that sounds as terminally desperate as those excursions into the soul's dark night, there are a couple of opportunities for Iggy to explore some atypical emotions -- copping to some vulnerability in the acoustic slide-driven "Unfriendly World," expressing a sense of exhaustion on the Exile On Main St.-ish "Beat That Guy" (which features lovely, ethereal backing vocals from Petra Haden and a tortuously lyrical solo from Williamson).

The album's spiritual center, though, is closing track "The Departed," an elegy for Ron that was first performed at a 2011 memorial show in Ann Arbor (the DVD release of which is delayed but imminent). In it, the signature riff from "I Wanna Be Your Dog" is recast as a dirge for its author, played by Williamson on slack-key guitar, giving way to heartfelt lyrics, tinged with regret, which Iggy intones in his blasted sexagenarian's voice -- recorded with the same extreme-close-up quality as it was on "1969" -- over martial drums: "There's no one here but us / By the end of the game / We all get thrown under the bus." Listening to this song, I remember hearing Iggy interviewed on a local Detroit station immediately after Ron's death. He sounded dazed, and mainly talked about their early acquaintance back in the '60s. It occurred to me that that interview was probably the first time I'd ever heard Jim Osterberg speaking, rather than Iggy. That voice is in this song, too.

The rockers are a mixed bag. "Burn" fulminates with Williamson cranking out the chords and wrestling off-kilter solos from his axe. "The man of the future's a bully and loser," sings Iggy in a voice more seasoned and nuanced than his '70s snarl, but not as operatic as his post-Bowie incarnation. "Sex and Money" and "Job" echo the Ron-era Stooges in the same way as some of the songs on the first side of New Values did, but they provide a much rougher ride, with handclaps, Haden's sultry backing vocals, and Steve Mackay's sax adding a Roxy Music/Mott the Hoople pop veneer to the former. On the latter, Iggy sings, "I've got a job and I'm sick of it" -- a clue that he's contemplating retirement, perhaps?

The Stones influence on "Gun" is reminiscent of Raw Power's uptempo numbers, while on "Ready To Die," with its strutting riff, Williamson layers on the crunchy guitars the way Keef used to back when his well of inspiration still seemed bottomless. "DD's" -- yes, folks, it's a song about tits -- has a Memphis soul groove, while "Dirty Deal" sounds cut from the same cloth as "Death Trip."

By now, Mike Watt's worked the four-string axe longer than any other Stooges bassist, and while Scott Asheton is more workmanlike here than he was in his adventurous younger days, when the tension between his reach and his grasp provided palpable excitement, he's still an original and it's a drag that he's been replaced for touring; his traps still cut it on record.

Bottom line? Comparisons being odious, I think Ready To Die is actually a more consistent record than Raw Power was. It's not as ground-breaking -- how could it be? -- but I'm betting it'll hold up to repeated listenings, the way The Weirdness didn't. Come back and ask me again in six months. could try it yourself.


Blogger Fast Film said...

As usual, yours is the most cogent analysis of the enduring appeal of the work of Pop, Williamson, Asheton, Watt (and all who marched before and concurrently.) My abbreviated take was wherein I knew the last two songs were the best of an already superior repertoire, but you've nailed it. Thanks!

1:36 PM  
Anonymous Rick Saunders said...

Really nice writing. A pleasure to read and it kept me interested. Cheers.

6:09 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks for the review. I admit I have been dubious about the new LP, but you've motivated to get with it!

9:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Remember, this is the first "Stooges" LP not actually recorded live, the parts were assembled by James.

From what I've heard, that makes a difference.

Nice review tho, Ken. D'you suppose you'd have a different understanding of the band if you'd seen 'em live in this century? ---- ig

10:38 AM  

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