A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
June 1, 2007
Am I just becoming a sentimental old coot or are “reunion” albums not as crass and cheesy as they used to be? Specifically, I’m talking about amazingly enjoyable, hard-rocking new efforts by The Stooges and Dinosaur Jr.
Back in the old days, reunions by groups like The Byrds, The Animals, and Jefferson Airplane ranged between pathetic and disappointing.
The early 1990s Velvet Underground reunion had its moments, but, like your average casino-circuit oldies act, the group stuck with its old material, not attempting to come up with new songs.
The Band, minus Robbie Robertson, did three albums in the ’90s. The first one, Jericho, had a few good songs (including some old recordings by Richard Manuel, who killed himself in 1986). The next one, High on the Hog, was surprisingly weak. I seem to recall a friend sending me a tape of the last one, Jubilation, but I don’t even remember any of the songs.
Perhaps the recent trend of decent reunions was started by Mission of Burma, the Boston-based post-punk band that re-formed earlier this decade and made two albums, Onoffon and The Obliterati, both of which stand up well beside the group’s 1980s work.
Let’s look at The Stooges and Dinosaur Jr.
The Weirdness is the first full album by The Stooges since a few years ago, when Iggy Pop and the brothers Asheton buried whatever hatchets had led to the destruction of the original band back in the mid-’70s. The Stooges have done at least one tour together and recorded a few songs that appeared on Iggy’s 2003 “solo” album, Skull Ring.
Bass stud Mike Watt (The Minutemen, Firehose) takes the place of Dave Alexander, who died in 1975. Original Stooge sax maniac Steve MacKay joins the band on some cuts here (though I wouldn’t have minded if he played on all of them).
I realize I’m swimming against the critical current in praising The Weirdness. Most of the reviews I’ve seen for this album have been scathing.
“An album that hideously disgraces the band’s original work,” Pitchfork proclaims.
“Pop’s lyrics about his penis and ATMs are beyond self-parody,” The Guardian sniffs.
“This is not the sound of a band with anything on the line,” The Austin Chronicle laments.
Give me a break. This is the dadgum Stooges we’re talking about. The band rose to glory on its intensified slop and clamor and dum-dum lyrics. The Stooges has always been proudly way beyond self-parody.
“Last year I was 21/I didn't have a lot of fun,” Iggy sang in “1969,” on the group’s self-titled first album. “And now I’m gonna be 22/I say oh my and a boo-hoo.”
Oh my. Boo hoo.
These are a bunch of guys on the far side of middle age. Iggy recently turned 60, and Ron Asheton and Scott Asheton are around that age. They aren’t hungry kids anymore. And they’re not breaking any new barriers like they did in their first incarnation. They’re old guys with massive chips on their shoulders; as Jerry Lee Lewis would say, they’re “middle-age crazy, trying to prove (they) still can.”
And the geezers are relentless. Nearly every song here rocks like the studio is about to explode. Ron Asheton strangles his guitar as if he’s trying to kill it.
Sure, you can imagine them all panting for breath and almost collapsing after every song. Maybe that’s part of the weird fun of The Weirdness.
Like Nick Cave on Grinderman, Iggy sounds more lecherous than lusty. But again, that’s part of the wicked charm of this record. He might not seem as dangerous as the Iggy of old (or as Grinderman, for that matter), but his disturbing combination of arrogance and creepiness is a marvel to behold.
The climax of The Weirdness is the last song, “I’m Fried.” It builds up to a bloody, musical punch-out between Ron Asheton and MacKay. I’ve heard very little stuff from youngsters and critical darlings that matches this inspired craziness.
As for Dinosaur Jr., with his long, graying hair, J. Mascis looks like he’s turning into Dinosaur Sr. This band’s history isn’t nearly as tumultuous, much less as essential, as that of The Stooges. But, going back to the mid-’80s, it was a vital group whose sound helped shape and inspire the great grunge groups. Mascis’ blaring guitar and mumbled vocals created a roaring but vulnerable persona that summed up much of the spirit of indie rock at the time.
Even without knowing the history of these musicians, Beyond is a dynamic and timeless rock ’n’ roll record. Beyond is not only the first new Dinosaur Jr. album in a decade, it also marks the reunion of Mascis and original member Lou Barlow, who left the band in the late ’80s to form another fine band called Sebadoh. That band was either more grating and discordant than Dino Jr. or more melodic, depending on the song. (I still say Roy Orbison should return from the dead just to record “Soul and Fire,” my favorite Barlow/Sebadoh song.)
Barlow contributes a couple of songs (and lead vocals) on Beyond. Both “Back to Your Heart” and “Lightning Bulb” are strong tracks, but this is mainly Mascis’ show.
Mascis is one of the only true guitar giants of indie rock. He makes the guitar solo an honorable thing in a genre that tends to turn its nose up at guitar solos. While his style owes little or nothing to the blues, like the best blues guitarists, Mascis infuses his solos with so much emotion that everything else seems almost superfluous. This is best illustrated by the last half of the six-minute “Pick Me Up,” which is one of Dinosaur Jr.’s finest moments of any decade.
Though Mascis is the main attraction, I believe that there’s real chemistry between him and Barlow. After all, when Barlow left, each Dino album became progressively less consequential.
Until now. I hope this reunion isn’t a one-shot deal.
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