The going gets weird

Is the new album embarrassing or skull crushing? Our in-house Stooges expert makes the call.

Mar 21, 2007 at 12:00 am

What would happen if Jesus came back and miraculously cured somebody's chronic heartburn? Would people appreciate the beauty of his miracle, or would they hurl abuse at him for not suitably following up the time when he healed that leper?

That's sort of the problem with even trying to talk about the new Stooges album, The Weirdness. The prime difficulty in understanding it at all is in coming up with an appropriate benchmark. Do you judge it by the band's impossibly brilliant first two albums? Do you hold it up to the output of contemporaries like the Who or the Rolling Stones who are still releasing records? Do you compare them to their punkish scions? How can these living humans approach their demigod legend?

The Stooges are a band fraught with context and the source of countless outrageous stories — half of them untrue or misunderstood. Of course, the truth is even stranger in many cases. But Detroit folks don't need to be told that — so many people around here lived it (or heard about it from parents or uncles).

Given the pedigree, expectations couldn't have been higher. Add to that the fact Iggy Pop, Ron and Scott Asheton and new bass player Mike Watt have lived up to those expectations onstage for the last four years, and anything short of all-you-can-eat loaves and fishes and hot-and-cold running wine will be deemed unsatisfactory by some.

The short answer? If the benchmark is Fun House, The Weirdness doesn't measure up. If the benchmark is pretty much anything else, they're doing a damn sight better than OK.

The album has already been dissected six ways from Sunday — bagging on it was a bit of a sport in the bars of Hamtramck all Blowout weekend. Most of the discussion seems to center around Iggy's performance or his lyrics. But that loses sight of the fact this album is really about Ron Asheton reminding people that he was as much of an architect of the Stooges sound as Iggy was. Throughout the record, he plays guitar like it matters, hurling explosive lead bursts like shit-covered hand grenades. He unleashes trance-inducing feedback on the title track, he revisits the wah-wah of "1969" on "Greedy Awful People." His talent is undimmed and his playing is inspired and twisted throughout. It goes a long way toward vindicating him.

On the propulsion end, Scott Asheton's drumming is as tribal and demented as ever — his bestial ride cymbal particularly devastating thanks to Steve Albini's raw, punkist production values. Ex-Minuteman Watt was brought on board at the insistence of the Ashetons (and with some trepidation on the part of Iggy, who worried that his playing was too flashy). He offers a fluid counterpoint to the brothers without being slappy or madcap — especially on "You Can't Have Friends." He sounds like a Stooge without losing his Wattness.

Which brings us back to Iggy. At one point, he sings "Don't bullshit the bullshitter," so I won't. He sounds fine — jaunty and full of fervor. But his lyrics frequently don't measure up to the ferocious musical settings the rest of the band offers. A song like "Free and Freaky" starts strong, but ultimately fails as a critique of American culture in comparison to, say, "1969." The Obama and Benihana references will render the former a dated novelty song before you know it. The latter, on the other hand, is dated in a literal sense, but "another year for me and you, another year with nothin' to do" is a sentiment generations of petulant teens have been able to relate to.

It's not all bad news on the lyrical front, though. "My Idea of Fun" is a standout. So many reviewers think Iggy's trying to be cutesy-outrageous with the chorus "My idea of fun is killing everyone," missing that it's one of the best critiques of the current world political climate anybody in pop has come up with. When he sings "Now is the season for war without reason," Iggy is harking back to his youthful obsession with politics — a side of Mr. Osterberg that is chronicled in great detail in Paul Trynka's upcoming definitive biography Open Up And Bleed.

Iggy is at his best when he unleashes his deep crooning voice on the mind-bending title track. With the addition of Steve Mackay's sax, "The Weirdness" is downtempo decadence, and it's the point where the performance and the lyrical content best mesh. "This word alone fits the ache in my bones," Iggy sings. "It's weirdness, my dear."

Given all of the mileage and baggage that got us to this point, that seems fitting.

Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Shame

Addendum: Somehow, it seems apt to be watching the live telecast of the 2007 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony while writing this. What final straws of credibility that corrupt institution clutched by inducting Patti Smith are obliterated by the fact the Stooges have been famously snubbed yet again. The fiasco with those Van Halen clowns only added insult to grievous injury.

But, on second thought, a nostalgia factory like the Hall of Fame has very little to do with the primal sex-and-sweat danger and pounding-skull frenzy that defines rock 'n' roll. Maybe the Stooges are better off staying away from those people. Y'see, as of this moment the Stooges are back for better or worse — and mostly better. Their music is living, a thing of this moment. They don't need your damn $5,000-a-plate dinner, and neither do we.

Brian J. Bowe writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].