2001 / Music

Review: Iggy Pop Looks Back, Farrell Heads For Dance Floor

Radiohead, Roxy Music, The Cult, Brand New Immortals Display New Wares

Read The Reviews: Iggy Pop | Perry Farrell | Radiohead | Roxy Music | The Cult | Doyle Bramhall II | Brand New Immortals

A decade ago, Iggy Pop and Jane’s Addiction vocalist Perry Farrell might well have been musical father and son.

Both Pop and Farrell came of age as bare-chested, drug-addled innovators. Since their glory days, they’ve taken their own distinct paths, and their new albums show things have taken a new turn for both men. While Pop returns to re-mine his raw, hard rock beginnings, Farrell has abandoned his rock roots altogether for dance music’s green pastures.

In addition to Pop and Farrell, other artists with new CDs in stores include Radiohead, Roxy Music, the Cult, Doyle Bramhall II and Brand New Immortals.

Iggy Pop “Beat ‘Em Up”

Besides Motown, Detroit’s only musical exports in the ’60s and ’70s were a few long-haired, full-throttle guitar bands. Although they all shared a love of power chords, they were divided between those who allegedly had artistic integrity and those who didn’t. Some became early proponents of punk (the MC5), while the rest took metal to America’s arenas (Ted Nugent, Alice Cooper).

Photo: Virgin Records

Photo: Virgin Records

Iggy Pop (and his early band, the Stooges) walked the line between the two camps. His music was every bit as brainy and ballsy as the MC5, but coated in machismo like the loin-cloth clad Nugent. Iggy was a closet intellectual seeking to legitimize the Id. Cutting through all pleasantries, he proved that songs about scoring, rife with barking riffs, were no longer embarrassing, adolescent delights to be enjoyed only behind closed doors — nor were they the exclusive property of the Kiss army. He was being honest.

Since the late ’70s, Iggy has delivered inconsistent records, the worst of which caught him imitating his old material. It got so bad in the ’80s ad ’90s that you couldn’t tell the difference between Pop and Nugent’s hair-metal progeny.

So it’s a surprise that Pop’s new album, “Beat ‘Em Up,” is a full 12 rounds of sweaty, sonic ferocity. While the sound of 1973’s “Raw Power” had Pop riding waves of growling guitars, “Beat ‘Em Up” is all bottom — Pop and the guitars hovering above the lunging bass and drum rumble.

The first cut, “Mask,” features guitars screeching overhead and a pile-driving rhythm with Pop’s caustic lyrics damning everyone and everything, pointing fingers in every direction. “Where is the soul? Where is the love? Where am I?” he howls.

In his Stooges days, Iggy’s voice blazed its own cadence within the songs, sometimes pushing the beat or competing with the guitar. Thirty years later, his vocal lines still seem unpredictable, although his voice now occupies well-worn niches in the songs.

On the title track and “L.O.S.T.,” Pop’s vocals prance beside booming guitar onslaughts. Although you can’t make out half of what he’s yelling during the latter track, the chorus explicitly mimics “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.”

For the finale, “V.I.P.,” Pop offers yet another surprise: he reveals the poet within him. With no guitars, he talks in rhythm about the hassles of fame for more than six minutes before the record quietly fades out. After a couple minutes of silence, he regroups for one last hand-pumping rocker.

Overall, “Beat ‘Em Up” shows that this old dog has learned some new tricks in addition to re-mastering his old ones.

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Perry Farrell “Song Yet To Be Sung”

In the decade after Iggy Pop’s shirtless prime, almost no ’80s rock singers had the unflinching artistic drive nor the self-destructive streak to qualify as Pop’s heir. That is, except for Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell.

As if unfazed by Reaganism, AIDS or the ’80s crack epidemic, Farrell seemed the unappointed advocate for every kind of indulgence — sexual, chemical or musical. Best of all, Farrell led the only rock outfit brave enough to fully utilize punk, goth and New Wave influences in their Led Zeppelin-sized melodies.

But despite playing the part of alternative rock’s howling ringmaster for years, Farrell’s solo debut is a low-key, dance-infused affair. A step away from the stadium rock shows, band breakups and drug arrests of his previous incarnation, the songs on “Song Yet To Be Sung” emphasize a calm, hypnotic tranquility and celebrate a spiritual awakening.

This has been a change long in coming. Farrell first dipped his toe in the electronic music pond during “Good God’s Urge,” the last record by Farrell’s post-Jane’s project, Porno For Pyros. That record proved an uneven marriage of mellow-rock coupled with faint, trip-hop production.

When Farrell reunited with Jane’s to tour and complete an “odds and ends” album, “Kettle Whistle,” in 1997, the band cut two new electronica-flavored tunes that pointed toward Farrell’s future rather than marking the group’s return to form. Since then, Farrell has kept following this muse, busying himself by playing DJ gigs around the country.

But rather than embrace one facet of dance music, “Song Yet To Be Sung” is a wide-reaching exploration. Unfortunately, it hangs together like an uninspired pastiche of techno, dub, house, reggae and others, as opposed to a coherent musical journey.

Worse still is the blurry, weak sound of the record. Although the club anthems “Happy Birthday Jubilee” and “Did You Forget” are notable exceptions, a majority of songs generate a feeling of apathy because the songs lack any distinctive instrumentation or unburied vocals. Someone forgot to tell Perry that unlike dance music, rock music isn’t designed to be scenery.

The album’s more potent experiments are a pair of Jamaican-infused tunes. With a reggae drum and bass pattern, “King Z” basks in flourishes of Eastern music that buzz around the rhythm. The second track, “To Me,” combines the march of a rock-steady piano and a walking bass part.

The title track is the only cut where Farrell harkens back to his former band (not surprisingly, it features cameos from Jane’s guitarist Dave Navarro and drummer Steve Perkins). Similar to the newer songs from “Kettle Whistle,” the song limps along wrapped in ethereal guitar sound effects and the echo of Farrell’s distorted vocals. The song is a decent try, but like this album, it lacks the savagery and thrust of the old days.

Farrell deserves credit for his willingness to escape the rock umbrella, but he’s abandoned that untamed quality that served him so well in the past. “Song Yet To Be Sung” sounds contrived. After years of walking the rock tightrope, Farrell is playing it safe.

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Radiohead “Amnesiac”

Being the best rock band in the world isn’t what it used to be. In rock’s early days, bands fought for the title, competing to see who could write the baddest song or hit the most groupies on the ass with seafood. Since the ’90s, groups like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Radiohead have each committed varied forms of suicide to duck taking on such a mantle.

And that was the aim of Radiohead’s last album, “Kid A.” Reflecting on Radiohead’s decision to abandon spacey, guitar-rock, put on a beret and delve into experimental, electronic mood pieces, R.E.M.’s Peter Buck said in a recent interview, “I can understand why they make the creative choices they make, because it’s a big machine you’re looking at.” In essence, “Kid A” was meant to shed some fans as well as push musical boundaries.

Less than a year later, Radiohead has released “Amnesiac,” an album recorded at the same time as “Kid A” that still relies on computerized effects, but is decidedly more accessible. The songs in the record’s core could fit comfortably on either “OK Computer” or “The Bends.”

But whatever dance beats they’ve messed with, Radiohead is still Radiohead. Their despondent-sounding albums could never be mistaken for party music. In fact, these new songs seem particularly disturbed.

Initially constructed around a spare piano pattern, the ominous “Pyramid Song” evolves into an eerie symphonic epic. Shadowed by strings and some digitized chirping, Thom Yorke’s voice soars as he half-mumbles the lyrics — his voice itself conveying a sense of beauty awash in dreariness.

Similarly gloomy, “You And Whose Army?” begins with Yorke’s singing — his voice so muffled and distorted that it sounds like he’s gargling. The song’s rhythm slowly swells into a pounding, piano-based chorus — perhaps the only one on “Amnesiac.”

Next up, “I Might Be Wrong,” couldn’t be more different, apart from Yorke’s voice (this time he’s singing in the shower). The song’s key feature is a staccato bass groove that could pass for funk, at least in England.

The brightest moment might be “Knives Out,” which heralds the return of guitars into the band’s palette. Four minutes of warped vocals, winding guitar lines and light drumming, it’s the most conventional song on “Amnesiac.”

After examining the songs on “Amnesiac,” it’s still anyone’s guess whether Radiohead is moving back closer to rock’n’roll or where they are going. And ultimately, it’s not important. The group’s songs have maintained the same level of quality the band achieved during their more commercial period. And as long as they continue to do so, they will still be the best band in the world. The crown is theirs whether they like it or not.

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Roxy Music “The Best Of Roxy Music”

The release of a new greatest hits album is usually a decent enough excuse for a band to get back together and head out on a lucrative reunion tour. In Roxy Music’s case, they’re not only offering “The Best Of Roxy Music,” but the group is also celebrating its 30th anniversary (and yes, a tour is in the works).

Although it’s easy to be deceived by the Sinatra-esque, lounge singer vibe that Roxy mastermind Bryan Ferry embodies, Roxy Music was a band ahead of its time. Art rock by genre and glam by appearance, the British band (which included famed producer Brian Eno in an early lineup) was made up of experimentalists who strived to keep their songs danceable.

Of the 18 tracks on this collection, you can easily pick out fragments that were borrowed by Roxy Music’s punk, New Wave and dance-pop descendants. The thudding guitar/bass combo on “Over You” could slip into any Joy Division song. “Same Old Scene” is a virtual blueprint for the early ’80s synthesizer bands. And “Love Is The Drug” is the bass line for every Duran Duran song.

In the ’70s, the group was once famous for its risque album covers. This new one — a photo of a model, a stuffed crow, a crystal ball and some jewelry — is instantly forgettable. Were these things just lying around in Ferry’s attic?

Fans can also catch a live rendition of these greatest hits during Roxy Music’s four-month world tour, which will be their first since 1983.

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The Cult “Beyond Good And Evil”

In the ’80s, Ian Astbury and the Cult were one of those bands that music freaks revered as under-appreciated geniuses. In 2001, the Cult are generally regarded as one-hit wonders.

Formed in the mid-’80s, the band was a blend of New Wave noir, the Doors and L.A. hair metal. By decade’s end, MTV made the video for “Fire Woman” (with Astbury sashaying about in leather pants and pirate shirt) a smash. Their 1989 album, “Sonic Temple,” even cracked the Top 10.

Their time on top would be brief. Drummer Matt Sorum defected to Guns N’ Roses, as did most of their fans (Sorum is now back in in the band, as is original guitarist Billy Duffy). Two follow-up albums fizzled.

“Beyond Good And Evil” is the group’s first new record since their 1995 breakup and subsequent regrouping. Produced by Metallica producer Bob Rock, the album emphasizes a harder side of the band. And the group should say a small “thank you” to Rock because the Cult never sounded better.

While Astbury is still bombastic, wailing his lungs out during each song, there are now pulverizing guitar riffs pushing the melody with him. The heavier sound on songs like “Take The Power” and “Breathe” spearheads the angry melodies.

The sound of the band has improved, but the tunes haven’t. Many of these songs are old school metal tunes with a facelift, and the record’s relentless pace gets repetitive.

This album does have a guilty pleasure: the first single, “Rise.” Although it resembles “Fire Woman,” especially during the chorus, there’s a bounding, high-speed guitar/bass passage that will give every air guitar practitioner a great workout.

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Doyle Bramhall II & Smokestack “Welcome”

In the ’90s, retro music was the stronghold of artists like the Wallflowers, Lenny Kravtiz or Ben Harper, who worshipped at the altar of the Age of Aquarius. “Welcome,” the new album from Austin, Texas guitar hero Doyle Bramhall II, pushes the genre a few years into the future to see if anyone’s craving any ’80s bluesy guitar.

Although “Welcome” is only his third solo offering, Bramhall is a youthful veteran. His father was a legend in the Austin music scene having played with and penned songs for the young Bramhall’s idol, Stevie Ray Vaughan. By the time he was in his late teens, Bramhall II was already playing with Vaughan’s brother, Jimmie, in the Fabulous Thunderbirds. In the early ’90s, Bramhall II scored a minor hit with the Arc Angels, an Austin-based outfit featuring the drummer and bassist from Vaughan’s backing group, Double Trouble, and another guitar prodigy, Charlie Sexton. However, recognition outside of Texas proved illusive as the band derailed, reportedly due to internal tensions and drug abuse.

“Welcome” comes as Bramhall’s career started gaining momentum again. A couple years ago, he was hired to play for Pink Floyd mastermind Roger Waters, standing-in for David Gilmour. It was after his stint with Waters that Bramhall got a call from Eric Clapton, leading to a collaboration on Clapton’s album with B.B. King, “Riding With The King.” The pairing proved so fruitful that Bramhall contributed to Clapton’s latest, “Reptile,” and he and his band, Smokestack, are opening the U.S. leg of Clapton’s current tour.

The ghost of Stevie Ray Vaughan envelops this record. Bramhall’s robust singing voice and the monstrous tones that he gets out of his guitar show what he learned from Vaughan. Although Bramhall’s songs are popier and less jamming-oriented than Vaughan’s, the tracks are guitar-driven and drenched in the blues. As such, Bramhall’s songs — as songs — are a cut above most that you’d find on Vaughan’s records, making “Welcome” an homage rather than outright mimicry.

The Vaughan influence is most apparent in the guitar passages on slower cuts like “Problem Child” or “Life,” although the growling “Green Light Girl” is the most punchy example. The latter sounds like a Vaughan song that has nicked the locomotive rhythm from Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild.”

“Welcome” also pays tribute to another guitar god: Jimi Hendrix. Like Hendrix, Bramhall’s guitar sets the mood of the music, conjuring a signature sound for each song. The guitar playing during the verses of “Helpless Man” is reminiscent of a church organ. A fat, wah-wah guitar wobbles through the funky blues shuffle, “Smokestack,” and perks up to answer the vocals during the chorus. Between the doo-wop vocals on “Soul Shaker,” Bramhall’s guitar sounds like he’s playing with a drill.

Despite the prominence of Bramhall’s guitar, these are solid, occasionally interesting songs. And although they come out of a mold wearing their classic rock influences proudly, Bramhall’s songs feature enough personality to make the retro vibe feel more like an adornment than a crutch. Lesson for Lenny Kravtiz: There’s a difference between celebrating your musical influences and repeating them.

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Brand New Immortals “Tragic Show”

Almost everything is here to make the Brand New Immortals’ debut album a hit: well-crafted songs with pop hooks and shiny guitar chords, a stellar vocalist, some name recognition and support from a couple of musical heavyweights. But sadly, there’s something missing: excitement.

This Atlanta interracial trio certainly has an eclectic resume. The band is led by ex-Black Crowes bassist Johnny Colt and lead singer/guitarist David Ryan Harris, the former leader of black-rock outfit Follow For Now. Along with releasing his own solo effort a few years ago, Harris also produced and toured with former Arrested Development vocalist Dionne Farris, who hit it big with the single “I Know” in the mid-’90s.

“Tragic Show” has even more powerful names behind it. The band is signed to the Music Company, Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich’s label (Ulrich was also the record’s executive producer), and the album was produced by Brendan O’Brien, who worked the knobs for Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots and Rage Against The Machine, among others.

Most of the songs adhere to a strict formula. The best examples, “Blacksun,” “Let Me Up” and “Reasons Why,” each have a propulsive guitar line, bland vocal harmonies, a clearly defined chorus and bridge, and last about four minutes.

Unfortunately, these melodies aren’t really humable, and the lack of variety causes the songs to blur together. Perhaps the music sounds limp because it was so well honed. — they whittled off all the edges. There’s no sense that the band just went into the studio and cut these songs in a couple hours.

There are a few respites. “Kalifornia” pushes in a funkier direction with Harris scat singing over a Bootsy Collins’ sample. The funk keeps rolling on “High Time,” which borrows some Stevie Wonder keyboard effects and adds a little “Strawberry Fields Forever” mellotron for the song’s break down.

Perhaps “Tragic Show” is proof that you can have all the ingredients and the recipe but still not create the perfect cake.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2001 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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