Friday, May 18, 2007

Music reviews: The Stooges & The Arctic Monkeys' latest

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThe Stooges, The Weirdness
The Weirdness is the first Stooges album in nearly 35 years from one of the most lionized bands in rock. Iggy Pop has gone on to a decent solo career, but the most cutting-edge time of his life was in the molten thrash-punk of the Stooges, who recorded three classic albums before calling it quits. Now, Pop has reunited with brothers Ron and Scott Asheton to see if that old fire can be summoned up again by men close to getting Social Security. Is The Weirdness anything like the old Stooges? Of course not - good lord, Iggy Pop is 60 years old now, and you can't expect this band to thrash and blast about quite like they did when they were young 20-something punks. So change your expectations accordingly, and The Weirdness is an enjoyably sloppy mess that rocks hard.

Unfortunately, Iggy's voice has gotten weaker and thinner (it's noticeably strained in a few tunes), but it's still got echoes of the sleazy croon of yore. Time hasn't tarnished the stomp of guitarist Ron Asheton (whose barb-wire riffs help save this album) and his brother, drummer Scott Asheton, while Mike Watt of the Minutemen and fIREHOSE fame steps in on bass to replace the late Dave Alexander. Producer Steve Albini gives it all a bone-dry, clattering feel. It's like overhearing a band jam in the garage. The Weirdness clearly aims to be the opposite of high-profile, slick band reunions – it feels like it was knocked out in a night or two, and it takes the feral chaos of the old Stooges and reduces it into a kind of Tourette's syndrome geezer rock. All that said, I still find this album rawly appealing.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketBut with winkingly juvenile lyrics like "My dick is turning into a tree," or "My idea of fun / is killing everyone," it's impossible to take The Weirdness seriously. And I don't think you're supposed to. It's garage punk by dirty old men, taking more than a hint of its sound from the decrepit modern-day Delta blues like the late R.L. Burnside. The lyrical stupidity doesn't always work – rhyming "Dalai Lama" and "baby mama" in "Free & Freaky"? Oy. While the haze of time has leant the Stooges' original three albums the gloss of hipster-approved perfection, they too were gritty, raw and sloppy albums by dirty young men. (The endless drone of "We Will Fall" on their 1969 debut comes to mind.) There's always been an element of amateurism to the Stooges.

While it rattles along, there's high points on The Weirdness, like the title track where Iggy summons up his deep Bowie voice for a churning anthem. Goofily inane "I'm Fried" roars with a fire close to the Fun House-era Stooges, while "The End of Christianity" aims to piss off liberals and conservatives alike. The Weirdness might not rise to the level of classic, but neither is it an embarrassment. Don't expect the sinister menace of the 1960s Stooges, but something kind of like a greasy old man ranting away in an alleyway with a mean backing band. If that's your bag too, this Weirdness might be for you.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketArctic Monkeys, Favourite Worst Nightmare
The UK music press takes band hype to interstellar levels (every band is the biggest thing since Jesus), but last year's hot pick, the Arctic Monkeys, actually lived up to the accolades with a stinging, hook-filled first album. The pop-punk Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I Am Not was more of a cult hit in the US, but it broke records in Britain, becoming the fastest-selling debut in British history. And heck, it deserved it a lot more than, say, Oasis – the Monkeys crafted a potent stew of punk rhythms and ennui-filled lyrics, capturing the feeling of the MySpace generation.

Now a year or so later, here's the follow-up, Favourite Worst Nightmare – get out your carving knives for the sophomore slump, right? Well, record #2 doesn't kick you in the bollocks the way the first record did, red-hot with its own fresh immediacy. But the Monkeys (barely a member over age 21) still smash together influences like the Clash, Green Day, The Streets and Blur into a bitter stew that is cynical but never hateful, often surprisingly insightful and consistently rocking.

Frontman Alex Turner's wiser-than-his years vocals snap and crackle with a cynical bite. His light-speed lyrical delivery, influenced by hip-hop, is faster than ever, almost like a cockney auctioneer at some points. But there's also a newfound wry romanticism to Turner's voice this time round, although let's not start calling him Michael Bolton – unless lines like "do me a favour and break my nose" make your heartstrings tickle. In another tune, he sighs, "true romance can't be achieved these days." The music rockets along with an adrenalized momentum with the knife-sharp dueling guitar lines by Turner and Jamie Cook and skittering drums by Matt Helders. It slows down for a few ballady-type numbers, but generally the mood is even more amped up than the first record.

What is missing is some of the lyrical specificity that in Whatever made you feel like you'd lived through nights with the band. The telling details of life in the band's native Sheffield are gone for a more global view. Yet the best numbers on Favourite crackle with empathy and contempt all at once, like the lover's kiss-off "Flourescent Adolescent" or the bouncy fame's-not-all-you-thought tune "Teddy Picker" (with witty one-liners like "the kids all dream of making it /whatever that means"). With their second album, the Arctic Monkeys prove that they're managing to overcome the hype to build up an actual career.

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