Graded on a Curve:
Iggy and the Stooges,
Ready to Die

If you were hoping that Iggy and the Stooges’ new record Ready to Die, which features the unlikely return of James Williamson on guitar, would somehow match the heights of Raw Power, you’re in for a little bit of disappointment. But taken on its own, the LP does include a few nice moments. It also has its share of problems. Maybe the best thing about Ready to Die is that it holds a few surprises that actually expose the limitations of its intentions.

In rock ‘n’ roll, it’s particularly hard to escape being dogged by past success, and this is especially true when those achievements happen to be amongst the most important in rock’s history. And when some cornerstone performer or legendary group returns to the studio after a lengthy hiatus, the chances that the results will somehow escape being judged against those previous breakthroughs are basically nil.

With their 1969 self-titled debut and its follow-up, 1970’s Fun House, The Stooges recorded two of the greatest albums ever. Few people saw it that way at the time. Aggressively unfashionable in the midst of feel-good hippie-era vibes, they sold hardly any records and imploded in a haze of heroin abuse, subsequently finding themselves dropped from the roster of their label Elektra

Resurrected through the efforts of David Bowie and with guitarist James Williamson in the lineup (Ron Asheton having switched to bass) they became Iggy and the Stooges and produced Raw Power with Bowie in the producer’s seat for new label Columbia in 1973. It also flopped commercially and the group disbanded in 1974, with the monkey still very much on Iggy’s back. Two years later Metallic K.O., a live document of their final shows, was issued semi-officially by the Skydog label and just in time for the reevaluation of The Stooges as punk rock reared its spiky, pissed-off head.

Of course, this is all part of rock lure. Of all the bands designated as proto-punk, The Stooges easily held the biggest overall impact on the music of the late ‘70s, and their influence continued to spread even after punk’s heyday was over. Genres such as post-punk, ‘80s underground rock, heavy metal, grunge, and more all came into contact with the fathoms-deep glory of the band’s work.

During this period Iggy commenced a solo career that featured the expected ups and downs, but the low points had almost no effect on the esteem for his prior band’s legacy, similar to how the twists and turns of Lou Reed’s solo material mattered very little in the general assessment of The Velvet Underground’s beautiful reign.

Even when Iggy and the Asheton Brothers reconvened in 2003 with Minutemen bassist Mike Watt (who replaced the deceased Dave Alexander) for series of live shows, the overall attitude remained positive, mainly because those gigs seemed to reveal the reawakening of a slumbering powerhouse.

In retrospect, it was sorta inevitable that Pop and company would grow dissatisfied with simply replaying those storied songs in a performance setting; almost as certain was that 2007’s studio return of The Stooges, the Virgin Records-issued The Weirdness, would fail to meet expectations.

Where most reunion releases inspire cynicism and griping that mingles with the sound of consumers slapping down hard-earned cash onto record-store counters to hear if just maybe said albums might actually produce something close to the goods, the appearance of The Weirdness found many folks teetering on the brink of hostility. There’s ultimately no mistaking the cumulative effect of its twelve songs for anything close to a good record, but the reaction of a lot of folks was an unusually personal one and toward a record that was pretty much predestined to fail.

Failing was a major theme of The Stooges, both lyrically and in terms of their initial success, and one of most interesting aspects of Raw Power is that it became clear that Iggy wasn’t all that interested in failure anymore. Along with the shift in billing, the newly appointed leader was Iggy Stooge no longer, newly christened for all time as Iggy Pop.

The biggest problem with The Weirdness was the grave failure of Pop’s lyrics, but the music also wasn’t really in keeping with the sound of either The Stooges or Fun House, for both of those LPs featured a palpable lack of control on the part of the band over the music that was oozing out of them.

It surely wasn’t random, but there was the feeling that if they’d waited a week or two to record either disc, those albums would’ve ended up sounding substantially different. This lack of control, when combined with their still edgy articulation of going nowhere fast, produced the thrilling combination of the pessimistic, the subversive, and the dangerous that continues to mark those first two albums as the band’s best work.

While on a purely musical level The Weirdness has a few moments, there was simply no way the band could recreate the aura of the pre-Raw Power Stooges, no matter how many times Iggy asked Mike Watt to locate his “inner stupidity.” And even with the inclusion of saxophonist Steve Mackay, the group was just too professional, their togetherness only serving to accentuate the shortcomings of Iggy’s words.

Ron Asheton died of presumed heart failure in January of 2009, and that seemed to mark the end of the reunited Stooges. It even appeared that way to Pop, who described Asheton as irreplaceable. Subsequently however, he’s reconnected with James Williamson, hooked up with new label Fat Possum, and 2013 has found its first quarter saddled with a new record from Iggy and the Stooges.

Many will carp that the change in moniker doesn’t really mean a thing, but as detailed above, Raw Power is a significantly different record than its predecessors. Just as many will snidely remark that Pop has apparently changed his assessment of the departed guitarist, but the model Ready to Die roughly follows is the one that found Asheton demoted to the bass player’s role.

Raw Power is probably The Stooges most influential record, and instead of trying to recapture what went down back in ’73, the majority of Ready to Die’s cuts seem intent on tackling the sound of that record’s vast influence. The results pay more dividends than The Weirdness mainly because there’s less disconnect.

If Raw Power can be evaluated as a part of Iggy Pop’s journey to The Idiot and Lust for Life (both from ’77, both collabs with Bowie), then Ready to Die can perhaps be hypothesized as what Iggy and the Stooges might have anticlimactically sounded like if they’d managed to stay together and find some actual success.

That doesn’t excuse Iggy’s lyrical shortcomings on “Sex & Money” and the simply atrocious ode to large breasts that is “DD’s,” but on the other hand, the passage of time has seemingly made the thoughts expressed on Metallic K.O.’s “Cock in My Pocket” a little easier to swallow. Problematic is that Pop seems to consider “Cock in My Pocket” to be one of Iggy and the Stooges’ best moments.

Ready to Die’s opener “Burn” is a sturdy enough tune, but it’s also far from remarkable. Tons of bands have used this very sound to establish their existence in the musical stratosphere, and “Burn” in no way exceeds the best (or even the merely very good) stuff that’s derived from this lineage.

That the following track “Sex & Money” includes backing vocals from Petra Haden and relatively restrained horn playing from Steve Mackay (quite far from his for-the-ages skronking on Fun House) makes it quickly clear that an aged Iggy isn’t really trying to recreate past glories but rather attempting to conjure the old magic in his present, far more comfortable reality.

“Job” does kick up some considerable musical dust, but its overall success will depend on how easily the listener deals with Pop singing a variation upon “Take This Job and Shove It.” The emergence of topicality was one of the big ruining factors of The Weirdness, and it drags things down somewhat on Ready to Die as well.

But ol’ Ig’s gotta sing something, y’know? The days of “No Fun,” “Loose,” and “Search and Destroy” are long gone, and if finding the man assessing the current state of his home country’s union (in short, it’s a bleak picture) on this album’s “Gun” leads to more than a bit of nagging disappointment, it also unexpectedly becomes one of Ready to Die’s better tracks.

The title cut does give Williamson a chance to strut his dusted-off prowess (he acquits himself well across the LP’s running time), though the relative polish of modern studio tech also takes the edge off considerably. The general thuggish execution of “Dirty Deal” fares much better in this environment, however.

That leaves the raucous and well-constructed pop oddity of “Beat That Guy,” and the acoustic atmospheres of the mildly Tom Waits-like “Unfriendly World,” and the somewhat bluesy sensibility of closer “The Departed” as the record’s outliers. All three are very nice listens that establish that Iggy Pop is far from a spent talent, and their quality sticks in the mind long after the LP has finished.

Ready to Die might be an improvement upon The Weirdness, but by including those three fine cuts that differ so strongly from the matchless oeuvre of The Stooges, the record subverts its very reason for existing, making a very solid case for Iggy to let go of past glories and instead look toward the future.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
C+

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