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The Major Lift

 

By Erik Hage

‘My dick is turning into a tree,” proclaims Iggy Pop, inexplicably, on “Trollin’ ,” the opening track to The Weirdness, the Stooges’ first studio album in more than three decades. But beyond the surreal horniness of the lyrics, the track—with its wallop of buzzsaw-sludge guitars and pounding Neanderthal rhythms—presents real hope that the dirtbag kings have returned, assuming the proportions of a cultural enema to wash all of the Fall Out Boys and Fergies from the national cavity.

And now that we hear Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” selling numerous products on TV, it’s easy to forget the cultural grenade the Stooges tossed into the ’60s musical universe when they first arrived. Their impact wasn’t truly felt until years later, when, with the beginnings of punk, they could be seen as the first to climb from that primordial ooze. But the Stooges weren’t “proto-punk”; that just cheapens them. They never belonged to any movement, as precursors or otherwise.

They simply followed their own brazen impulses, bundling them in a sort of brilliantly uncalculated incompetence, meanness and dumbness. The opening, guttural guitar roll of “I Wanna Be Your Dog” was all one needed to hear to know they weren’t in 1969 America anymore (even though they were). My buddy (Trouser Press founder) Ira Robbins put it best a few years back at Salon.com: The Stooges were “pollution-fueled aliens . . . who fit into the cultural fabric like cigarette holes in a couch.”

And so the group, with Mike Watt on bass, reconvened in 2003 for a well-received tour, with Iggy in appropriately apeshit and sinewy form. The Stooges also reconvened in the studio as a backing band for some tracks on Iggy’s solo album, Skull Ring (though pop-punk kids Sum 41 propelled the album’s best track, “Little Know It All”). Frankly, that should have served as the reunion, for this album is pretty bad. Here the group, Iggy in particular, seem like they’re trying to intentionally play it dumb, and the typically flat, murky production from Steve Albini doesn’t help. (Albini, a story in himself, is often hired for his “hip” factor; his production usually sucks.)

The group no longer naturally possess the lumpen neophyte-isms that once made them unique (i.e., they can play well now); yet Iggy chooses to sing through his nose or make his pitch go all wobbly to recapture some of that old dumb magic. Guitarist Ron Asheton’s tone often sounds like ’80s metal to my ears; his busy, high-wailing, noodly leads (which he first started exercising on Fun House) also get tired after a while. Perhaps, in true Stooges fashion, this is willful self-sabotage: an end to an end to an end to an end.

Scotland newbies the Fratellis have released a much more enjoyable album and are yet another group that I’ve discovered via an iPod commercial (the first being the Caesars). Just give in to it: The music on commercials is far better than that on radio—and pop music has never been a philanthropic or nonprofit endeavor anyway. I’d rather have a kid discover Nick Drake via Volkswagen than Switchfoot via Clear Channel’s cookie-cutter playlists. If I must, from here on out, associate the Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society with Hewlett Packard, so be it. And to anyone who disagrees: May Pete Townshend give you the old hardbody-Gibson-to-the-back-of-the-head-boffo that he gave Abbie Hoffman at Woodstock. The media landscape is far different than it was in the late ‘80s, when Michael Jackson sold the Beatles’ “Revolution” to Nike.

At any rate, the Fratellis’ Costello Music is great. The commercial single “Flathead” comes off like the Violent Femmes with much more grandiose and complex pop ambitions. There is a lot of whimsy at work here, but the snappy, athletic rhythms show that the group have real chops. “Got Ma Nuts From a Hippie” sounds like some kind of skiffle-punk-ska amalgam, while “Creepin’ Up the Backstairs” is a light-footed, energetic romp that pits pop mastery against the proverbial tongue-in-cheek.

In her own corner of the United Kingdom, young English singer Joss Stone approximates Aretha Franklin like no young skinny white girl ever should. There’s a part of me that wants Introducing Joss Stone to be bad, but it’s simply terrific. “Tell Me ’Bout It” has the funky drive and vocal command of Aretha’s early work. In fact, a good portion of the album takes cues from the quality R&B of the ’70s. On “Tell Me What We Gonna Do Now,” the musical bed and Stone’s luminous vocal attack clearly echo Al Green (though Common’s rap contribution sticks out awkwardly). In choosing to reach back to earlier soul and to ignore the influence of more recent vocal gymnasts like Mariah Carey or Christina Aguilera, Joss Stone has come out with a top-notch R&B album.

LCD Soundsystem have released something entirely less groovy, setting Stephen Malkmus-style vocals to throbbing techno-disco with the lead single, “North American Scum.” LCD auteur James Murphy seems intent on being cute and clever on Sound of Silver, and even his keening, non-dance-rock closer “New York I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down” seems to rip a bunch of bedroom, mope-rock clichés, all the way back to Daniel Johnston. If you’re looking for the new indie-rock, hipper-than-thou, smarmy-smart album to hate (I know I am), this is it.

Finally, Reprise has released my ultimate wet dream of a set, pulling together all of the Bee Gees’ studio work from 1967-1968. I am going to have to pull a quote yet again from Ira Robbins, who recently pointed out that it is entirely possible to be in a tiny minority about something and still be absolutely right. While the world genuflected over Sgt. Pepper, truly the Beatles’ worst album, the earth kept spinning, and one of the great overlooked accomplishments of the era was the breathlessly emotional, orchestrated pop of the Brothers Gibb (long before they made their name with disco).

Songs like “Massachusetts,” “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You,” and “To Love Somebody” are some of the most gorgeous pop songs ever recorded. Period. This set culls stereo and mono mixes of the first three albums (Bee Gees 1st, Horizontal, Idea) and pads it out with a bunch of outtake scraps. Hopefully, this time around, more of the world will listen to work that rivals Pet Sounds and blows Sgt. Pepper out of the water. Maybe someone should stick “To Love Somebody” in a commercial for eHarmony. That’s bound to kick it into the zeitgeist.

 


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