Sunday, September 12, 2010

New Values by Iggy Pop (1979)

In 1979, Jim Osterberg had something to prove. He had just released two of the most critically acclaimed albums of his solo career, but they were overshadowed by his creative collaborator, a certain D. Bowie. Keen to ditch the training wheels that his celebrity pal had provided, New Values was to showcase Iggy’s ability to make his own luck in life. The cover alone shows off the strength of the solo artist; this was not a man who needed crutches from anyone.

In the mid-1970s though, Pop needed all the help he could get. Washed up physically, commercially and creatively, he had checked himself into an insane asylum to try to kick heroin. The Stooges had broken up in 1974, after 1973’s last stand Raw Power. Having produced that album, David Bowie continued to support Iggy Pop while he was locked up (by smuggling in drugs, for instance), and finally took him on the road for the 1976 Isolar tour, supporting Station to Station. The two also fostered a creative relationship. Their “Berlin Years” are stuff of legend, spawning several in-depth articles and even an entire book devoted to their output between 1976 and 1978. In an effort to escape LA, where Bowie had spent his own annus horribilis locked in his home, coked out of his mind, subsisting on milk and peppers, storing his urine in the fridge and drawing pentagrams on the floor, the two decamped to Berlin to live a more sober life. The albums they recorded there (and in France) were all released in 1977 and arguably represented the peak of their respective careers.

The 1977 output of Messrs. Pop and Bowie, clockwise from top left: January, March, August, October

From the late 1960s to the early 1970s, he had been cast as a “sweating lunatic”, but The Idiot showed a side to Iggy Pop that had largely been lost on the public; the experimental raconteur, the son of an English teacher, the well-read Europhile. It was also on this album that Bowie’s fingerprints were most obvious. It proved to be a dry run for the latter’s Low, but it was released after Low so that it wouldn’t look like Bowie was aping Iggy. Billed as a cross between James Brown and Kraftwerk, the desolate musical landscape was lightened by some funk and soul workouts courtesy of Bowie’s backing band. This album also included a menacing “China Girl”, slickly covered years later by Bowie partly to provide royalty revenues for Pop. Lust For Life would be a more typical Iggy record: guitars dominate, the tempo is higher and the rhythm section of the Sales Brothers was reminiscent of The Stooges’ Asheton Brothers.

Having David Bowie with him for the 1977 promotion for The Idiot took Iggy Pop to some unusual places, including this daytime chat show. Iggy's natural wit and charm towards the older generation would win over his hosts. This video also shows a brief clip of the Pop/Bowie dynamic onstage.

This career rejuvenation was very much overshadowed by Pop’s patron, who had broken through in the US with Young Americans and Station to Station. Much was made of Bowie’s keyboard work in Pop’s touring band, attracting as many concert-going fans as the singer himself. The release of Lust For Life also coincided with the death of Elvis Presley. When the first pressing sold out, RCA’s record plants were churning out Elvis’s old albums, and the well-received Lust for Life disappeared off the shelves, never becoming the hit it deserved to be. Iggy was at the top of his game, but somewhat frustrated by his second-fiddle status and lack of support by his record company. Keen to put more distance between himself and Bowie, he used his new critical and commercial clout to negotiate a new recording contract and prove himself.

Right off the bat, New Values delivers. Demonstrating a cleaner, slicker production than its immediate predecessors, “Tell Me A Story” has female backing vocals, a few new wave synth sound effects, a laid-back guitar solo and a mix that puts Iggy Pops vocals front and center. “New Values” features a vocoder, and has a punky riff that drives the song, without sounding as apocalyptic as Raw Power. In fact, the Stooges’ guitarist from that album, James Williamson, produces the album, and along with Scott Thurston on lead guitar New Values picks up where Raw Power and Kill City (1975) left off. “Girls” has simplistic lyrics, a parody of a love song, crooned by Pop’s excellent singing voice. Providing much character throughout the sessions is Klaus Krüger, drummer of Tangerine Dream. His tight, dry and rhythmic drumming makes a welcome addition to Pop’s sound, having replaced Hunt Sales’ loose thudding on Lust For Life. Practising with a so-called click-track, Krüger’s Teutonic precision gives the album a solid base and a good start to the crisp production. Williamson’s production has been criticised for being unnecessarily, even harmfully elaborate, being more of a production showcase than facilitating Pop’s songs. Arguably, the album’s clearly “produced” nature adds distinct character without overshadowing the strong songs.

The two men who defined the sound of New Values: Drummer Klaus Krüger and producer James Williamson

Strong opening tracks aside, it’s the two singles (that is to say, promo videos were made for them) that stand out. “I’m Bored” and “Five Foot One” are possibly Iggy Pop’s best solo songs, definitely the best without the Stooges or Bowie. “I’m Bored” has a catchy angular riff, a fantastic drum part and funny lyrics. Proclaiming himself to be “chairman of the bored”, the whole song is a funny tirade against “stiffs, dips[omaniacs]” and his own “kicks”. “Five Foot One” is a beefy rocker in the vein of Motörhead, with lots of horns, animalistic howling and ironic lyrics thrown in. “I wish life could be/Swedish magazines” is the nihilistic slogan.

“Hiya Dogface!” A buzzing/buzzed Iggy Pop literally jumps out of his chair, fends off questions about his reliance on David Bowie, ridicules Australians and mimes to “I’m Bored” with full devotion.

Two other tracks that stand out from the rest are “Don’t Look Down” and “The Endless Sea”. These experimental tracks are somewhat of a departure for Pop, and prove to be exciting listening. “Don’t Look Down” is a smooth, mid tempo song that’s organ driven, super slick and choir-drenched. It’s beautifully light-hearted, quite a novelty from the rage of the Stooges or the experimental nihilism of the Bowie collaborations. “So why be bored?” asks the track that immediately follows “I’m Bored”. “The Endless Sea” starts as a synthy mood piece, introduced by spot-on drum loops from Krüger. It gradually builds to a climax, and must be heard to be appreciated in all its tonal glory. Needless to say it represents some kind of experimental highlight of pop’s 70s output, rivalling some of the soundscapes on The Idiot.

Other tracks on the album are sadly mere filler, including the naively racist “African Man” with stereotypes that could only have been acceptable in the 1970s (“I live in the jungle/I eat with my fingers/go home you dirty white man”). A few soppy love songs give way to “Billy Is A Runaway”, a new-wave freak-out that’s instantly forgettable. Nevertheless, New Values is essential listening, and proof that there is more to Iggy Pop than fronting proto-punk Stooges or eating bratwurst in Berlin as David Bowie’s test subject. His solo career was off to a promising start with The Idiot, Lust For Life and New Values under his belt. Sadly, his luck would not hold up and he would, like so many huge 1970s artists in the 1980s, crash and burn quite spectacularly. Only since reforming the Stooges in the early 2000s would Iggy Pop receive more credibility and popularity. Since Ron Asheton’s untimely death in 2009, Iggy’s tour would convince James Williamson out of retirement and some songs from New Values are being heard all over the world again for the first time since the early 1980s.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Don’t Believe the Truth by Oasis (2005)

By 2005, Oasis’ glory days were over. In fact, they had been over for almost ten years. A sensational first album, a single-filled “classic” second album and a giant concert at Knebworth in 1996 had fuelled the Gallagher brothers’ braggadocio into the realms of parody. Truckloads of Columbia’s finest hadn’t helped their creativity or artistic subtlety either, culminating in the hotly anticipated Be Here Now (1997). Around that time, Blur, Radiohead and The Verve were on the last chopper out of Britpop, their albums of that year showing creative development, maturity and a peek at the new millennium (Blur, OK Computer and Urban Hymns, respectively). Oasis on the other hand, rehashed their traditional gigantic sound, filled an entire CD with overlong songs, threw in an orchestral arrangement or two, and basically stamped out every melody with a sneer here and a guitar lick there. By the time Standing on the Shoulder of Giants [sic] came around (2000), half the band had left amid inflated egos, some very public and chronic fraternal infighting and creative drought.

Heathen Chemistry (2002) had gone some way to testing new musical ground. Gem Archer (guitar) and Andy Bell (bass) made their recording debut with the group, bringing in fresh blood and much-needed stability to the flailing band. The Liam Gallagher-penned “Songbird” showed some looseness in the band’s sound that had largely been absent since (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? (1995). “The Hindu Times” took Oasis’ psychedelic tendencies from Standing to extremes, playing up its 1960s influences. “Born On A Different Cloud” is epic in a good way, incorporating many musical elements without drowning the mixing board in guitar parts, as had been the case on Be Here Now. Overall, Heathen Chemistry felt like treading water, a transitional album at best. Don’t Believe The Truth takes the line-up of its predecessor, and sets out for its make-or-break challenge. Blur had called it quits two years before, Oasis grimly soldiered on in the post-Britpop 21st century.

Track one, side one. "Turn up the Sun" is a fantastic opener.

Right from the first track, it’s obvious that this is an Oasis album that breaks new ground. “Turn Up The Sun” is the first (and thus-far only) time a non-Noel Gallager track has opened an album, showing the validity of contributions from the rest of the band. Bassist Andy Bell’s stomping track is the perfect opener, ending with a beautiful jangly instrumental passage. Then its business as usual, with a twist. Noel Gallagher sings “Mucky Fingers”, ambiguously addressing Tony Blair and New Labour. The riff shamelessly references The Velvet Underground’s “Waiting For The Man”, but its energy is much appreciated at this point in the band’s career. The song fulfils a similar role to Heathen Chemistry’s “Force of Nature”, being a simple Noel-sung rocker as the all-important “second track”. “Lyla” is the non-remarkable, archetypically Oasis sing-along lead single, in this case channelling the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man”. Next, it’s Liam Gallagher’s “Love Like a Bomb”, an acoustic waltz with some vintage electric licks occasionally played over the top. The piano takes the song to a new level in the dreamy choruses.

Absolute highlight of the album is “The Importance of Being Idle”. Noel explains the give-and-take in the band’s internal politics as him allowing the band to contribute more writing, but expecting to sing more in return. It’s this track that exemplifies his new direction. The song is the most important track on the album, and possibly their most important post-Morning Glory song. A personal song, with strong Kinksian influences and knees-up piano hammering along, “Idle” showcases the craft of Gallagher’s songwriting at its best. A fantastic, un-Oasislike choreographed, out-of-body video featuring Welsh actor Rhys “Hugh Grant’s Flatmate from Notting Hill” Ifans only adds to the iconic status of the track.

The video to the album's strongest track, equally special in its style and content.

The shortest track on the album, “The Meaning of Soul” is an acoustic punk rock song, a throwaway Liam track that acts as a bridge/interlude halfway through the album. He is also the author of the next track, a pleasantly reflective song with biblical references. “Part of the Queue” is another fantastic Noel Gallagher composition that he also sings on. Its bouncy rhythm is highly reminiscent of The Stranglers’ “Golden Brown”.

Don’t Believe the Truth winds down with three tracks. “Keep the Dream Alive” is another fine Andy Bell track, with a soaring, beautifully sung chorus and great drumming from Zak Starkey. He drums in a constant psychedelic loop, as pioneered by his father on The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows. “A Bell Will Ring” is Gem Archer’s contribution, one of the few moments than can be classified as “filler”. The album ends with “Let There Be Love”, one of the few Gallagher brothers’ duets. Like most of the album, it is strongly piano-driven, accompanied by acoustic piano and distorted string parts. The song has an upbeat, almost funky coda, ending the album on an optimistic note.

At eleven tracks, and running time of a modest 43 minutes, Don’t Believe the Truth is an exercise in brevity. Each song has a purpose, a distinct character, and the arch of the songs is clearly defined. If one forgives the wacky title, and the one or two unremarkable moments, it’s not unreasonable to consider Don’t Believe a solid return to form. The line-up was firming up, the songs were trimmed and new creative directions were unveiled. Oasis is mining British rock’s history as ever, but that’s been their modus operandi since the days when they were still called “The Rain” after a Beatles b-side. On this album, the winks, nods and “borrowing” always gels into something interesting, which is more than can be said for some of their earlier album tracks. There is a new drive, a lightness to the arrangements, and a maturity in the democratic songwriting that sets this album apart from the other 21st century Oasis albums.

Don’t Believe the Truth was well received, gaining much coverage as a “return to form”. Already in 2006, Liam Gallagher was quoted as saying “it’s old news, it’s done, finished, and it wasn’t even that great to begin with. What’s left to say? […] It’s not bad, but it’s not genius, is it?” (Q Magazine, June 2006, Issue 239, p94) The band would follow it up with 2008’s Dig Out Your Soul. This album is decidedly more hit-and-miss than its predecessor, particularly because this time around the non-Noel tracks are subpar. It also seems to revert to the early 2000s, with its over-reliance on psychedelia. Nevertheless, what would prove to be the band’s swansong contained two or three great songs. The maturity of the songwriting on Don’t Believe therefore sets it apart from all of its decade's siblings.