Thursday , July 2 2020

Music Reviews: Iggy Pop’s ‘The Bowie Years,’ Plus John Craigie, Anthony Garcia, Lee Gallagher

James Osterberg—who goes by the decidedly more hip-sounding name Iggy Pop—has twice left a distinctive mark on the music world. First, from 1969 through the early 1970s (when he was using the equally rock-ready moniker Iggy Stooge), he served as vocalist for the Stooges, a proto-punk band that made groundbreaking albums like Fun House and Raw Power. Then he went solo and had another brief but notable creative spurt, thanks partly to a collaboration with his pal David Bowie.

It’s this second period that’s celebrated in a seven-CD box set called Iggy Pop: The Bowie Years. Anchoring the well-packaged collection, which includes a 40-page hardcover book, are remasters of the two 1977 studio albums to which Bowie contributed, Lust for Life and The Idiot. Both do a good job of combining Pop’s sardonic and twisted world view with Bowie’s tech wizardry and commercial instincts.

The Idiot, Pop’s Bowie-produced first solo release, contains eight tracks, all written by him and Bowie. (One number, “Sister Midnight,” also credits guitarist Carlos Alomar, a longtime Bowie cohort.) The album largely abandons the Stooges’ guitar-heavy approach in favor of an emphasis on synthesizers and keyboards, but it retains Pop’s dark humor, penchant for decadence, and world-weary vocals. On the hedonistic “Nightclubbing,” for example, he sings, “We see people, brand new people / They’re something to see / When we’re nightclubbing…Oh isn’t it wild.” Characteristically, Pop belies the lyrics’ exuberance by sounding bored enough to want to go straight home.

Lust for Life, which Bowie coproduced with Pop and Colin Thurston, conveys at least as much attitude as The Idiot but features music that’s more rock oriented and at least relatively more accessible. Pop actually sounds a bit upbeat on numbers like the anthemic “The Passenger,” which was written by guitarist Ricky Gardiner, and Bowie’s “Some Weird Sin,” which finds the singer proclaiming, “I never got my license to live” and “Things get too straight, I can’t bear it.” 

Then there’s the atypically soulful “Turn Blue” and the title cut, a Bowie/Pop cowrite that would fit nicely alongside such early Velvet Underground tracks as “Some Kinda Love.” That one may find you tapping your foot to the drum beat as Iggy announces, “I’ve been hurting since I bought the gimmick about something called love” and adds, “Well, I am just a modern guy / Of course I’ve had it in the ear before / Cause of a lust for life.”

Next up in the box is the eight-track T.V. Eye Live, which first appeared in 1978 and collects recordings from a 1977 tour. Containing songs that originally showed up on The Idiot and Lust for Life, as well as such Stooges standouts as “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” it has its moments but suffers from uneven performances and the lack of Bowie’s production values. 

This box’s fourth disc, dubbed Demos and Rarities, is nothing to write home about. Rather than offering obscure compositions and performances, it delivers only alternate mixes and edits of the material on the other albums. The sole highlight is an interview snippet from Pop about collaborating with Bowie on The Idiot. It’s brief—less than five minutes—but Iggy’s comments prove surprisingly straightforward and meaty.

Rounding out the box are three discs of concert material from Cleveland, Chicago, and London. None of it has been officially released before with the exception of three tracks that appear to be duplicated on T.V. Eye. Like that 36-minute album, these CDs were all recorded in 1977 and feature songs culled from The IdiotLust for Life, and the Stooges’ catalog. But the new discs are each 20 to 30 minutes longer than T.V. Eye, and their performances are generally more inspired. On the other hand, the set lists on the three albums are nearly identical, and it’s debatable whether anyone needs, for example, six versions each of “China Girl” and “Sister Midnight” (one on The Idiot, two on Demos and Rarities, and one on each of these live CDs).

That said, there’s probably enough on The Bowie Years to justify its purchase by any Iggy Pop fan—or any Stooges lover, for that matter. But if you’re not already acquainted with this music, you’d be well advised to investigate carefully before handing over your credit card. Pop can be a pretty strident vocalist and, even with Bowie on board, his frequently dissonant music makes only minimal concessions to the mainstream. It’s no surprise that it was Bowie, not Pop, who wound up having a top 10 hit (in 1983) with The Idiot’s “China Girl.” 

BRIEFLY NOTED

John CraigieAsterisk the UniverseFolk singer/songwriter John Craigie has been making good albums for more than a decade but Asterisk the Universe may be his best. Like 2017’s No Rain, No Rose, it finds him recording live in a home with friends, but the sound this time evokes different influences. 

“I’d been listening to a lot more hip-hop and soul…and I found myself writing songs that had very simple chord structures and repetitive rhythms,” explains Craigie. “In a lot of those tunes [on the new album], you hear old samples from Bill Withers, Al Green, and Nina Simone.” 

The set includes nine self-penned numbers plus a cover of the late J.J. Cale’s “Crazy Mama” that fits in well enough to be mistaken for a Craigie original. The album benefits from imaginative lyrics, Craigie’s distinctive singing, and vocal backup from the Rainbow Girls, a folk trio who take over the spotlight on a sublime dreamy number called “Used It All Up.”

Anthony GarciaAcres of DiamondsSinger, songwriter, guitarist, and classically trained pianist Anthony Garcia cites an eclectic combination of influences that range from Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix to Leonard Cohen, Townes Van Zandt, and Johann Sebastian Bach. 

The Austin, Texas-based artist melds these inspirations imaginatively on the story songs that dominate the powerfully sung Acres of Diamonds. Fasten your seat belt for a consistently satisfying ride that incorporates lots of stylistic twists and turns and features violin, viola, and cello player Megan Berson, whose moody strings recall Scarlett Rivera’s embellishments on Bob Dylan’s Desire.

Lee Gallagher and the HallelujahL.A. YesterdayThe San Francisco–based Lee Gallagher and the Hallelujah have another strong release in the 10-track L.A. Yesterday. The album weds anthemic, psychedelic-sounding music to Gallagher’s soulful, quavering, and passionate vocals, which remind me a bit of both Pavlov’s Dog and the late Bert Sommer. 

This is an emotionally intense, tightly constructed, and instantly accessible collection that deserves a wide audience. If you listen to ’60s music and complain that “they don’t make ’em like that anymore,” you might change your mind after hearing this irresistible album. 

About Jeff Burger

Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.

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