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Back From the Grave

A Revitalized Stooges Manage To Show Up Two Young Pretenders To the Throne

Alex Fine

By Mikael Wood | Posted 3/21/2007

The Ponys, the Black Lips

The Ottobar, March 23

A good deal of the critical reaction to The Weirdness (Virgin), the first Stooges album since 1973's Raw Power, has inexplicably fretted over the cave-man simplicity of Iggy Pop's lyrics. Um, hello? Pop pretty much started the Stooges as an affront to rock-scene sophistication; the protopunk act's three original-issue albums emerged at a time when Pop's peers needed reminding that where electric guitars are involved the id usually has as much to say as the ego. So what were people expecting from these guys? Neon Bible?

What Pop and his two age-old sidemen, Asheton brothers Ron and Scott, have actually coughed up is something far more precious than that: a big-budget goof that's thoroughly unembarrassed by its goofiness. Recorded over three weeks last October with Steve Albini, The Weirdness is the year's hardest-rocking comedy album--12 new songs in which it's impossible to tell if the jokes or the riffs are funnier. Highlights include opener "Trollin'," in which Pop announces that "my dick is turning into a tree" while Ron Asheton humps an absurdly familiar trash-garage lick; the punk-jazz title track, where Pop flexes the gravelly cabaret croon he cribbed from David Bowie over denatured doo-wop guitar; and "Free and Freaky," a gang-vocal rave-up that reveals, once and for all, the problem with France: "The cheese is stinky and the beer ain't cold."

Throughout The Weirdness, the Stooges couldn't sound less concerned with preserving their legacy, and that makes them sound much more like their late-'60s selves than most reviewers have claimed. Back then, they weren't angling for acceptance into the rock-historical canon, which gave their music a primal energy the canon came to regard with respect; nearly 40 years after the band's debut, you'd think that accumulated esteem would weigh down The Weirdness. But it doesn't. This thing is just as effortlessly stupid as you'd hope.

That effortlessness is key: None of these tunes sounds like an attempt to prove how wild and crazy and non-fuck-giving the Stooges remain after all these years. Pop's no doubt learned how to manufacture carelessness by now, but even if he's faking it on The Weirdness--even if he is intent on proving his pushing-60 lunacy--the music doesn't give away his trick, which renders the issue moot. As he warns in "ATM": "Don't bullshit the bullshitter."

In contrast, every tune on Los Valientes Del Mundo Nuevo (Vice), a new album by Atlanta's Black Lips allegedly recorded live in Tijuana, sounds like an attempt to prove how wild and crazy and non-fuck-giving these neo-psych noiseniks are; they seem more interested in honoring the Stooges' tradition of onstage abandon than the Stooges themselves do. (The Lips' live reputation hinges on their propensity to spill bodily fluids in liberal amounts.) That's not a bad way to freshen up the familiar garage punk they make: Produced with crispy in-the-red intensity by former Rocket From the Crypt mastermind John Reis, Los Valientes throbs with an overdriven mania that excites in spite of its contrivances.

That's no faint praise in the Lips' trash-blues milieu, where the demand for historical accuracy often supersedes the demand for a pulse. But like most everybody in the Vice Records camp the band's now a part of, these guys are canny stylists before anything else; they're interested in arresting your senses, not engaging your heart. And that gives Valientes a vague whiff of cynicism that only begins with the slightly creepy feeling that the purported Tijuana setting here was simply an excuse to exploit the exotic fervor of Those Passionate Mexicans. For all its rock-star baggage, no such whiff taints The Weirdness.

Nor does it make an appearance on Turn the Lights Out (Matador), the latest album by Chicago's Ponys. Which isn't to say that these guys--and gal--aren't stylists: The Ponys' densely textured sound carefully complements retro-garage verities with shades of melancholy English art-pop; it's like Nuggets crossed with one of those old 120 Minutes compilations long on Joy Division and Julian Cope tunes. Thanks to Matador's studio-budget largess, Lights Out is even more handsomely styled than the band's two previous albums, with chewy traces of leftover Cat Power soul-rock and jammy Sonic Youth bits where producer John Agnello had ample opportunity to take on-the-clock cigarette breaks.

But despite Lights' knowing art-school stew, it never feels like the Ponys are trying to get one over on us the way the Black Lips are: They just wanna make their racket and go home. Perhaps the Lips' approach is truer to the Stooges' original mission; without a doubt, Iggy Pop's stage antics were in large part about willful provocation, about seeing how far a frontman could take an audience before it stopped buying his act, and then taking it a little further. (The antics were also about staving off dullness, a technique from which the Ponys' album, for all its virtue, could probably stand to benefit.) But today's Stooges sound like awfully decent fellows. Could it be that their influence will end up revolving around the importance of meaning it, man?

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