2007 / Music

Review: The Stooges’ Reunion Album Just Plain ‘Weird’

Seminal Proto-Punk Group Reunites For New Disc

More than 30 years ago, the Stooges were the spark that ignited the punk rock explosion.

Photo: Virgin Records

Photo: Virgin Records

The Detroit-based group’s music — an elastic combination of rock, funk and jazz — was a feral assault that challenged the prevailing rules of ’70s rock ‘n’ roll. But unfortunately for the band, this musical and cultural powder keg was one with a painfully long fuse.

By the time the scene finally blew up, the Stooges had already imploded. As others followed the musical trail they blazed, the group’s iconic frontman, Iggy Pop, endured a seesaw-like solo career while the other band members were exiled to rock’s minor leagues.

Now all these years later, the Stooges have reunited for a brand new album. Sadly, at the moment when the group is now poised to finally lay claim to all they deserve, “The Weirdness” lives up to its name for all the wrong reasons.

The seeds for the reunion were sown four years ago when Pop’s ex-bandmates, guitarist Ron Asheton and drummer Scott Asheton, showed up on a handful of songs on Pop’s last solo album, “Skull Ring.” However, the appearance of his old chums, along with guest appearances by Green Day, Peaches and Sum 41 cast a shadow on the status of Pop’s solo career. An artist leaning on friends is never a good sign. The disc was disappointing considering that his preceding album, “Beat ‘Em Up,” took the Stooges’ sound to an even more vicious direction.

“The Weirdness” should only confirm suspicions that Pop’s songwriting has reached a fallow period.

One of the problems immediately confronting “The Weirdness” is the exact same hurdle that was apparent when the Stooges first emerged in 1969: the band’s musical and lyrical simplicity. The goon mentality inherent in their songs resulted in the group being grossly underrated and overlooked in the late ’60s and early ’70s. (Back then, prog-rock was in its ascendancy.) This central paradox has dogged Pop and band ever since. While the Asheton brothers and late bassist Dave Alexander pummeled listeners with heavy rhythms, Pop wowed them with James Brown and Mick Jagger mannerisms taken to gross, lewd exaggeration. Fans and critics were baffled by the juxtaposition of what they saw on and then off stage. In interviews, Pop was an intelligent, articulate conversationalist. Behind the mic, there was Iggy the visceral, physical performer howling caveman poetry. Almost 40 years later, he and the band are still struggling to overcome artistic elitism.

Another challenge for the modern-day Stooges is one that has trailed Pop throughout his solo years, but one that the band never had to contend with during their lifetime. It boils down to how a group of musical revolutionaries like the Stooges can sound relevant long after their cause has prevailed. The Stooges dissolved in 1974, just one year before punk rock took both sides of the Atlantic by storm, with songs and a style of performance that owed an obvious debt to Pop and company. Ever since, Pop has had to compete against better-looking and more engaging imitators. It’s a situation with clear parallels to rock ‘n’ roll’s founding generation (Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley) and the gods of the classic-rock era (the Beatles, the Rolling Stones).

Structurally, “The Weirdness” has more in common with the Stooges’ primitive self-titled debut than the free-jazz and funk freak-outs on “Fun House” or the lunging, guitar savagery on “Raw Power.” Unlike those two albums, these new riffs and lyrics aren’t as appealing and are so basic and unmemorable that it should instill courage in every garage band in America. The Steve Albini production, as is his laissez-faire trademark, just emphasizes the 12 song’s rudimentary qualities.

“Trollin'” kicks off the disc and presents the template for the most of the tracks on “The Weirdness.” The Asheton brothers, joined by former Minutemen bassist Mike Watt, are engaged in a tightly focused charge on listeners’ eardrums and innards. Like the old days, they use every weapon in their arsenal — power-chord riffing, squealing guitar breaks and propulsive drum fills — to attack. But, what they’re working with isn’t engaging or dynamic.

Pop is in no better shape. His voice is lower than when he was last with the Ashetons, and although he does manage the occasional vocal nod to the late James Brown like he did on the “Fun House” album, he’s no longer a lyrical wiseass. Song after song, his vocal performances are fine, but his verses are surprisingly clumsy and tread closer toward just being juvenile and explicitly shocking than thought-provoking and confrontational. On “Trollin’,” he’s so pornographic that any listener would be a bit embarrassed. During “ATM,” he sings a potentially indicting line, “The Stooges fight poverty in secret.” Guess that explains the reunion.

Most of the album’s cuts, like “The End Of Christianity,” “I’m Fried” and “She Took My Money,” just blur together between the familiar distorted guitar skronk and one-speed-only rhythm. Pop’s deadpan singing doesn’t really sell the tracks. “Free And Freaky,” which includes a guest vocal by the Raconteurs’ Brendan Benson, is a single-in-the-making but the ever-present sameness to the other songs keeps it from realizing its potential.

The Stooges stop their sonic offensive only twice, once for the record’s title track. “The Weirdness” strolls along like an early ’50s slow-dance number. However, even this song is delivered with a degree of brutality. Scott Asheton bashes his kit, and the melody’s glide of ascending and then descending guitar chords are played on an axe that sounds bulked up with steroids. As the guitar punches and then hisses with feedback, Pops uses his deep-voice croon to seduce a victim softened up by the band’s musical blows.

Similarly, “Passing Cloud” takes a different tact than the other tracks. “Fun House” saxophonist Steve MacKay returns to the tribe and adds some guttural melodies on top of the clashing waves of guitar. While Pop croons and Scott Asheton plays a collapsing jazz beat, brother Ron gives an excellently restrained and varied performance. He plays a frenzied wah-wah guitar solo that suggests both Jane’s Addiction’s Dave Navarro and ex-touring partner Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis. Unfortunately, the song only suggests a path not taken.

From opening track to conclusion, “The Weirdness” constantly provokes more questions about what are the group’s punkish intentions versus what’s their creative status. To be as blunt as the music is, a majority of these songs aren’t very enjoyable.

But is it because we as listeners have lost touch and are snobbishly looking for music that’s more sophisticated? Or is it because most of these riffs just suck? At the risk of playing into Pop’s trap, these songs just don’t cut it. In the 34 years since “Raw Power,” many bands have stuck to just four chords per song and come up with better results than this.

“The Weirdness” will not deny the Stooges their earned rewards but will reinforce perceptions that they’re a relic. After years of being ahead of the curve, now time has passed the Stooges by.

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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 2007 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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