Ten favourite albums: 9 Iggy Pop The Idiot

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I needed to acknowledge the incredible talents of David Bowie somewhere in this list. Bowie’s work is a consistency over a lifetime achievement -especially the 70s and early 80s – and while I think Aladdin Sane (1973) and Low (1977) are his best with a nod to Blackstar his final album released days before his death in 2016, none are individually quite good enough for my top 10. Eventually I realised my favourite Bowie record wasn’t released under his name at all.

I wasn’t a huge fan of James Newell Osterberg Jr or Iggy Pop as he preferred to be styled but I did buy one of his albums when I was busily adding to my Bowie collection around 1980. That was the live album TV Eye (1977) which I was intrigued with because Bowie’s paw prints were all over it. Bowie co-wrote most of the songs and also provided keyboards and backing vocals in the Cleveland gigs the album was recorded from. It would have been some concert to attend.

David Bowie first met Iggy Pop in New York in 1971. As Pop recalled in an interview after Bowie died, “David had said something in Melody Maker about his favorite songs, and he said he liked the Stooges, which is something not a lot of people would admit at the time.” The song TV Eye was from the Stooges period as was the best song on the live album: Dirt. But the rest of it was from a fruitful artistic collaboration in 1977 in Germany just as Bowie was starting his own Berlin residency.

The Idiot (1977) was the first album Pop recorded without the Stooges but it has Bowie imprints everywhere. So much so, that many traditional Iggy Pop fans say it is his least typical album. Indeed there is a good case for calling it Bowie’s first album of could be called a Berlin quartet (with Low, Heroes and Lodger).

Pop said he learned a lot from Bowie. “I first heard the Ramones, Kraftwerk and Tom Waits from him,” he said. Bowie had an important effect on the third Stooges album, Raw Power. “We did some sessions at Olympic Studios in London and sent the tapes to David,” Pop said. “He came back to me: ‘You can do better than that.’ So we did.” Pop said Bowie never wasted a piece of music or an idea “I first heard his 1980 song ‘Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)’ when we were in a house on Sunset Boulevard in 1974. It was called ‘Running Scared’ at the time. He was playing it on the guitar and wanted to know if I could do something with it. I couldn’t. He kept it and worked it up.”

The Idiot also showed they both absorbed the lesson: Don’t throw stuff away. The opening track Sister Midnight was written by Bowie, Pop and guitarist Carlos Alomar and Bowie would later rework the song as Red Money on his 1979 album Lodger. Frankly the Idiot version is better. The second song Nightclubbing is another Pop / Bowie classic (most brilliantly later reworked as the title song of a Grace Jones album of covers). It also featured on the classic soundtrack of Trainspotting alongside the title track of the second Pop-Bowie collaboration that year Lust for Life.

The Idiot is named for Dostoyevsky’s novel that both men and producer Tony Visconti liked. In it Prince Myshkin is a young man whose goodness and lack of guile lead people who meet him to assume he is an idiot. Whether Pop and Bowie liked that conceit or just liked the read is hard to say but there is a disarming simplicity about the album that hides more than it reveals.

The Idiot was recorded in Munich and Berlin and the third song Funtime, another Pop/Bowie composition, reflected their fascination with the German music scene and resembled krautrock band Neu!’s 1972 song “Lila Engel“. Guitarist Phil Palmer enjoyed working with Pop and Bowie but called the recording “vampiric” as he never saw either during the day, a fact alluded to in the lyrics of Funtime “Last night I was down in the lab / Talkin’ to Dracula and his crew.”

The song China Girls was another Bowie/Pop song reworked by both artists, though again The Idiot version just shades Bowie’s later recording on Let’s Dance. Bowie biographer Paul Trynka said the song was inspired by Iggy Pop’s infatuation with Vietnamese Kuelan Nguyen, who was staying at the studio. But “China White” is also slang for heroin and both men had serious drug addiction problems at the time, so they were probably having a bob each way.

Side two opens with Dum Dum Boys, another Bowie/Osterberg composition. Reviewing the album in ClashMusic Amanda Arber said it was the best song on the album: “an ode to The Stooges’ glory days, is a disturbing insight into Pop’s internal monologue of how he saw their rise and fall.” Pop admitted “Things have been tough / Without the dumb dumb boys” but now there was always Bowie to fall back on.

It’s a great song but my favourite is the last song the brooding eight-minute long Mass Production (Pop/Bowie). In Jim Ambrose’s biography of Pop Gimme Danger, Iggy said he would always talk to Bowie about how much he admired the beauty of the Northern American industrial culture that was rotting away where he grew up (Muskegon, Michigan). The BowieSongs blog says it is draining to listen to and willfully abrasive “Mass Production offered the future: Joy Division, among others, starts here,” the blog said.

Arber’s assessment 35 years after its release of The Idiot was that it was bleakly revolutionary then, and it is now. “The Idiot stands as a dark, dense and desolate display of an artist confronting his demons head-on, and growing up in the process,” she wrote in 2012. I’d agree with one proviso – it was about two artists and their demons – not one.

Ten Favourite Albums: 8 Radiohead In Rainbows

81KWYrlOt7L._SL1254_Conventional wisdom is that the best Radiohead album is either OK Computer (1997) or Kid A (2000) with the latter usually shading it in most verdicts. These ranking lists are more meaningful than most with Radiohead by most measures the most influential band in the world for two decades and my personal favourite. I certainly loved OKC from the moment it came out and played it on high rotation for at least 12-18 months in the time that followed. Perhaps because I played it so much, I listen to rarely these days though several songs on the album still have the ability to enchant. Kid A I liked less from the off though has been growing on me over the years. But the Radiohead album I most often turn to these days is the album usually listed by critics as their third best album In Rainbows (2007).

I still remember the buzz around OK Computer when it first came out 21 years ago. I didn’t like their 1993 debut Pablo Honey (and was possibly the only person in Australia who hated the single Creep) so was uninspired to pick up the second album The Bends (I would later grow to appreciate that album). But OK Computer touched me in ways I did not expect, despite its nerdy off-putting title. As a Pitchfork review said it combined “delicious melodrama with frenzied crescendos of massed guitars massaged into busy, buzzy orchestration which perfectly contrasted with the wounded innocence of Thom Yorke’s choirboy cry.” Radiohead were certainly feeling Lucky “I’m your superhero /
We are standing on the edge.”

Their pre-millennial tension gave way to Kid A three years later, an album Rolling Stone said “was the pinnacle of their trying-too-hard genius (which loomed) over everything else they’ve done before or since.” While the critics agreed it was their best and it had three or four great tracks, it strangely left me cold. It seemed to forgetfully blur into the off-takes that followed, appropriately called Amnesiac (with Morning Bell linking both).

Hail to the Thief (2003) was released in the aftermath of the Iraqi War and like most political albums failed in its over-earnestness. Radiohead being Radiohead it still had some great tracks like 2 + 2 = 5 and Go To Sleep.

The hype around any new Radiohead album was enhanced with In Rainbows over the band’s decision to introduce a pay-what-you-want model including getting it for free, after the band has broken up with record label EMI. It was worth every penny people didn’t pay for it. 15 Step got the album off to a cracking start “You reel me out then you cut the string.” The rocking Bodysnatchers was released as a single, while Nude sounded lushly romantic with its strings and swooning guitars.

I have no idea what Weird Fishes/Arpeggi is about, but its pulsating rhythm makes it one of the best tracks on the album. All I Need slows down the pace but is just as good. “It’s all wrong, it’s all right.” It sure is. Reckoner is an instant classic and is voted by many as the best song of the decade. “We separate / Like ripples on a blank shore / In rainbows.” And if that wasn’t enough there is still room for another great song Videotape, with a secret reason as to why is a deceptively difficult song to record for such as great earworm. As Open Culture said about the song’s structure “the chord sequence is not on the downbeat, but shifted a half-beat earlier. Hence, it is a heavily syncopated song that removes all clues to its syncopation.” For some it was Thom Yorke’s way of saying goodbye “because I can’t do it face to face.”

Radiohead are still producing great music today – A Moon Shaped Pool is a fine album but as the Guardian wrote In Rainbows flows seamlessly along. “It sounds supremely confident, like a band who know they’re at the height of their powers,” the Guardian wrote. “Whatever you paid, it’s hard to imagine feeling short-changed.”

Ten Favourite Albums: 7 Cat Power The Greatest

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It is quite the risk to call one of your albums The Greatest – even if the name is a tribute to Muhammad Ali – but Cat Power pulls it off with her 2006 album. Cat Power is the stage name of Atlanta musician Chan Marshall, daughter of blues musician Charlie Marshall. A move to New York aged 20 introduced her to the Big Apple experimental music scene and there she recorded her first two albums, the second of which Myra Lee (1996) got a 5/5 review from Rolling Stone. Her third album What Would the Community Think (1996) was produced by Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and featured styles ranging from alternative rock to folk and blues.

She moved to Oregon and spent time in Melbourne where she recorded Moon Pix (1998) and then after releasing a covers album followed it with You Are Free (2003) which received widespread critical acclaim. The Greatest came out a year later, recorded in Memphis. As Pitchfork said in its review The Greatest resembled all her previous records as “a mostly sad, heartbroken, hopeless, rainy-day affair.” Pitchfork noted several veteran Memphis studio musicians served as her backing band, including Mabon “Teenie” Hodges on guitar, his brother Leroy “Flick” Hodges on bass, and Steve Potts on drums. “These soul legends have played with Al Green, Booker T. and the MG’s, Aretha Franklin, Neil Young, and more; in other words, they don’t seem like the kind of dudes who’d stand much tortured diva bullshit from some no-name white girl off Matador Records,” they said.

The quality is evident from the opening title track. “Once I wanted to be the greatest / No wind or waterfall could stall me.” It is bleak but beautiful. Following on is the breezy Living Proof. The Guardian review said about this song her band get to stretch out and kick back in their signature fashion, “but there is something about Power’s vocal drift, and her almost abstract lyrics, that makes the conjunction strangely inconclusive.” My conclusion: my favourite song on the album.

Could We takes off in another intriguing musical direction while the brief but beautiful Islands is perfect Nashville country in Memphis. The final two songs end the album on a perfect note. Hate is hard and you can feel Power’s power “They can give me pills / Or let me drink my fill / The heart wants to explode / Far away where nobody knows.”

Hate can be great but love is better and Love and Communication is a great way to finish a great album. “Drawn to the party like a spider filling up your guts / Don’t hate the night with what you shouldn’t have.” As Pitchfork said Power turned the tables on the final track “Instead of the Memphis crew welcoming Marshall into their world, the closing track sees Marshall luring the studio vets down her dark, claustrophobic alley. ”

There may not be much room to move and it may be hard to see but The Greatest is a rich and rewarding journey still paying itself off a decade later.

Ten Favourite albums 6: Mercury Rev Deserter’s Songs

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A few years ago I attended a gig at the Zoo in Brisbane. The American band playing was Mercury Rev and the venue was sparsely attended. But those few there got a terrific performance from Jonathan Donahue and his crew and the small crowd lapped it up especially when they played any song from their hallmark album Deserter’s Songs (1998).

I bought that album not long after it came out, most likely on the recommendation from my brother who was also telling about similar great American music being made by bands like Grandaddy and the Flaming Lips. Donahue, the founding member of Rev used to be a member of the Lips and his vocal style was not dissimilar to Wayne Coyne. Indeed the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev were recording in the same studio at the same time and while Rev produced Deserter’s Songs, the Lips came out with The Soft Bulletin, an album almost as good.

Formed in Buffalo, New York, in the late 1980s Mercury Rev experimented with a psychedelic rock sound on their debut album Yerself is Steam (1991) and Boces (1993). Their third album See You on the Other Side (1995) crashed and burned and the band found themselves deep in debt. Donahue slipped into a deep depression and cut off all communication with his fellow bandmembers. Donahue began listening to albums he loved as a child, including “Tale Spinners for Children” which inspired him to compose  simple melodies on a piano. He began to recover and set a new musical direction for Mercury Rev.

Though without a manager, lawyer or label, the band got back together. Deserter’s Songs was written and recorded in the Catskill Mountains (where Donahue grew up) in six months, helped by Catskill residents, Garth Hudson and Levon Helm of The Band. Donahue admitted the world “wasn’t exactly waiting for another Mercury Rev record” but as the Guardian said the end product was “near flawless, one of those records on which not a second is wasted and every track could be a single”.

The song Holes gets the album off to a terrific start. According to Pop Matters Holes “is a swirling melancholy dream, a Grimm’s fairy tale with pain and darkness coursing just under the surface of an elegant and ornate reverie of beauty and wonder.”  Yeah whatever, but great music. Tonite It Shows has Donahue at the top of his power vocally “with spine-tingling power, his voice catching at the edges like a man overcome with the force of memory.”

The next classic on the album is Opus 40, named for a large environmental sculpture in Saugerties, New York, created by sculptor Harvey Fite. Keyboardist Adam Snyder told Uncut in 2015: “I remember Jon (Donahue) and I were sitting in a room in Kingston, which is like the gateway to the Catskills. I started tinkering around with a Wurlitzer, and that’s how ‘Opus 40’ was born.” Guitarist Sean “Grasshopper” Mackowiak said it was a place Donahue used to hang out.

Goddess on a Hiway was the first single from the album and a personal favourite. As NME wrote Goddess was “the biggest pop moment of the record, like a Disney theme tune if it had been fucked up by a cult US indie band.” If that doesn’t sound like praise, they concluded: “It still sounds awesome.”

It’s followed by another classic The Funny Bird which as one reviewer (appropriately named Deserter’s Songs) says “takes Neil Young’s ‘Like A Hurricane’ and significantly ups the paranoia levels: Grasshopper wrestling great squalls of unholy terror from his instrument, which seems to dissolve in on itself by the song’s climax.” I agree with that reviewer’s take on the entire album: “It remains full of secrets I can’t begin to fathom, and depths I haven’t even begun to explore. The funny bird still refuses to come to earth.”