Skull Ring - Iggy Pop (Virgin)

iggyskullBeen waiting for this for some time so expectation levels were primed. If the prospect of another Igdisc doesn’t fill you with rabid anticipation after the ups and downs of the last two decades, the prospect of four tracks reuniting him with the Asheton brothers certainly should…

As if you didn’t know , Iggy – and most definitely his alma mater the Stooges – has a special place in the I-94 Bar. Fuck, if they rocked in on a quiet night I’d buy ‘em all drinks till they couldn’t stand and we’d all end up driving the porcelain bus home. (Certain people with prior personal experience of the Ig in his bad old wigged out days would say I'd be stuck with the bill anyway). The funny thing about fandom is that holding heroes in high regard means they’re almost certain to slip up and fall. Some of us take vicarious pleasure in watching it happen. Then we bitch and moan, and move on to forgiving and forgetting, before buying a ticket to watch the play’s next act.

Take the Ig. It pains me to say it but the guy has tripped over so many times, if you were a doctor you’d diagnose a middle ear imbalance. Live, he has had few peers, even with a hack band behind him. Remember the early '83 tour with Frank Infante and co behind him? Plodding riff merchants but the Ig's energy was stunning. On disc? Well, not all of 'em have been dire, but most have been patchy. The last outing, "Beat ‘em Up", for example, was an OK, if overly pissed-off racket, a shot at something rocking and contemporary that was too consciously Nu Metal. The dull-sheen of "Instinct" and more unhinged "American Caesar" had their moments of greatness, but the man himself disowns the disastrous "Party" and how many times can you listen to "Zombie Birdhouse" before checking yourself into one?

The good news is that Iggy’s managed something that most of the doubters (this one included) hardly dared hope would happen. He’s reached inside himself and pulled out one of the best albums of his solo career - certainly the best since "New Values". It’s certainly not just down to the presence of the Stooges on four tracks (although that hasn’t hurt).

A recent comment by one Igfan on a newsgroup has it that "Skull Ring" is good but our man still needs to loosen up and get back to primal basics. With respect to that critic, for the most part that’s exactly what it sounds like he’s done. Granted, a couple of collaborations are tight. Productionwise, there's no hint of the Bowiefied studio gloss of "Blah Blah Blah" or the dry session feel of the folky and ultimately flakey "Brick by Brick". It sounds nice and basic with enough punch and presence without polish.

Ig’s longtime backing band The Trolls (10 years-plus and counting) sound less "metal" and more "garage" (if those horrible generic tags make sense) than in previous outings. Loose and limber. They play on six official tracks (seven if you count the unlisted bonus "Nervous Exhaustion"). "Perverts in the Sun" is the sort of song that the Trolls have been threatening to nail all these years. Maybe they've been out looting retirement villages or robbing payphones or something, but on this one they sound like a motley gang of petty crims cutting a swathe through Miami's South Beach, swiping handbags from retirees before their 3pm check-in with the parole officer. Dirty slide and a breackneck beat make this their their finest moment but the other tunes are uniformly excellent. "Here Comes the Summer" is a stuttering guitar blast that's fairly base in its delivery (save for a crooning middle eight) and the catchy "Whatever" bears a superficial resemblance to the Hives.

Of course from here on in is where, potentially, it gets sticky. The rest of the disc is filled out by collaborations with other parties other than the Stooges - namely, Sum 41 ("Little Know It All"), Peaches ("Rock Show", "Motor Inn") and Green Day ("Private Hell", "Supermarket"). Sum 41 hardly figure in my world so I wasn't as outraged at some by the thought of a collaboration. Although "Little Know It All" is the closest to commercial pop punk on this disc, it swings and bites, in a righteous way. Don't listen too hard and you might mistake it for the Sewergrooves or one of the more tuneful Scandi bands to whom Detroit is a musical touchstone, as well as a dot on a map. It's way off anything Ig's done in the past and hard to shake once it's in the memory banks. The Green Day cuts resonate with a tinge of rockabilly and are nothing less than tremendous pop punk. Again, the collaboration has drawn fire, but maybe Iggy genuinely likes these guys after sharing umpteen festival stages? Who cares whether they have degress/big bank accounts. The music is what counts and it works.

The duets with Peaches are Ig's with a gal first since the Kate Pierson hook-up on "Candy"; the lascivious "Motor Inn" is mildly funny but "Rock Show" really grates. Maybe they'll grow with time but I mark 'em down a grade. We know what Iggy was thinking when he sat down in solo mode with his acoustic guitar and spat out "Til Wrong Seems Right", and as admirable as the anti-mainstream radio and TV rant is, Bob Dylan the Pop is not. It's a throwaway and should have remained a demo.

If you've made it this far you're probably asking, 'What about the Stoogetunes?' Glad you did. "Little Electric Chair" is the opener, a rumbling, jammy sort of assault with the unmistakable Rock Action pounding and Uncle Ron's omniprescent chordage. (Ron also plays bass on all four songs). "Skull Ring" is the album high point, a juicy guitar pumelling with a likeness to the "Peter Gunn Theme" played by a bunch of outlaw slackers. It's uplifting in its dumbness and you, too, will find yourself chanting "Skull Rings/Fast Cars/Hot Chicks/Money" at the unlikeliest moment.. "Dead Rock Star" finds Iggy in "Instinct" crooning mode and is a winner. The Ron lead break is reassuringly familiar, if you've ever heard New Race, Dark Carnival or Destroy All Monsters. "Loser" doesn't quite measure up, marred by a jokey Iggy vocal. A letdown, by a slight degree only. Play them all back-to-back and they work, anyway.

Who's going to quibble? It's a more than respectable - no, pretty great - quartet of songs and a focal point, if not backbone, for the album (without detracting from the Trolls' blazing contribution). Do these tunes add to the overally legacy of the Stooges? They're unlikely to knock "Funhouse" outta MY Top Ten, but who really gives a fuck? They're back, the songs ain't bad and they hint at things to come, if the rumoured Stoogealbum comes off. Fuck, these guys are the Stooges - the motherfuckin' Stooges! - and that says it all. More power to 'em.

I was told that I'd start to hate "Skull Ring" by the fourth or fifth play. Ten spins later, and still no trace of the contrived put-on a few people expected. Iggy's real and he's human and he's made some mistakes. This isn't one of them.

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Tags: iggy, stooges, pop, virgin, virgin, skull ring

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