Ian once lamented, "Old records never die". Neither do some old rock stars, apparently. Hunter has been making idiosyncratic solo records since he jumped from the lovably neurotic and possibly perfect but sinking ship that was Mott the Hoople back in ‘74, taking with him his curmudgeonly genius for penning punchy, pissed-off pre-punk rock confessions for a solo career full of promise. Over the years, a few tracks (Once Bitten Twice Shy, Just Another Night, Irene Wilde) and a couple records (Never Alone With a Schizophrenic, Ian Hunter Live) hit a popular nerve for a nano-second (you remember that cheesy Barry Manilow cover of Ships?) During the recorded tour in ’79 that was to become the aforementioned double disc Ian Hunter Live (which, by the way, remains one of the best live rock records ever recorded) rumor had it that Hollywood golden boy Jack Nicholson was even part of the backstage entourage. But for the most part, Ian’s solo career has lurched along like a ’71 Cuda with a bad cylinder, garnering mostly kudos critically but belching mostly black smoke commercially. The slow slide into oblivion began with Hunter’s next release in ’81, Short Back ‘N’ Sides, a quirkily entertaining but now sonically dated collaboration with The Clash’s Mick Jones. But while Ian’s star has been on the wane ever since, his rock and roll heart has kept the beat.
Luckily, the story doesn’t end there. Hunter spent the rest of the eighties sputtering out fun but inconsistent (for him anyway) records, a forgettable movie soundtrack cut or two, sometimes with, and sometimes without, his longtime former Bowie guitarist buddy Mick Ronson, who ended up losing a valiant battle with cancer in the nineties. With Ronson’s death, the nineties became a write-off, Ian going underground and staying there, surfacing only for a handful of live guest sightings here or there with the likes of Def Leppard and Ringo Starr. Then in 2001, Hunter resurfaced with Rant, a blisteringly acerbic and surprisingly tenacious return to form that garnered much critical praise and absolutely zero commercial interest. But for Ian, who was by now closing in on his mid-sixties, sales didn’t matter- he went on the road, and by the time 2004 rolled around, he seemed to be basking in the soft light of a meager but satisfying artistic renaissance. His website got some new hits, he recorded a live record with string backing and even re-released his legendary and long out-of-print Diary Of A Rock and Roll Star in paperback. Rocking gracefully into the sunset as an aging and past-it rocker wasn’t looking quite so bad after all…
Fast forward to May 15, 2007 with the release of Shrunken Heads. Turns out Rant wasn’t a swan song, but merely the pre-show warm-up – Shrunken Heads is nothing less than Hunter at the peak of his powers - his voice has been scumbled by the 100-grit sandpaper of life, but he still sounds remarkably like the soulful, golden locked Dude of old. Lyrically, it’s yet another lean, mean, cuttingly accurate critique of the absurdities of life in America, Hunter’s go-to wellspring of inspiration. But it’s the music here that captivates – no, there ain’t any Irene Wilde or Once Bitten Twice Shy here, but sweeping through his over thirty years of solo work, you can’t find a more consistently solid chunk of songs on a single Ian studio offering, well, ever. So now you’re thinking, yeah right, an almost seventy year old rocker releases another pointless record just to prove he’s not dead and we’re supposed to believe it’s not embarrassing and sad and well, really, really, really bad? Yeah, well, I’m not asking, I’m telling you - this is not a swan song – Shrunken Heads is a triumph.
Most Hunter solo sets include a couple (or a few) stinkers, either gimmicky experiments or half-baked dirges that should have died in the mixing room, but with Shrunken Heads, you have to work hard not to like every cut. Words (Big Mouth) begins with Ian croaking "I got a big one" (mouth that is), and his band proceeds to saunter through the gloriously laid-back beat with the lazy satisfaction of a farm cat curled up on a porch swing on a hot summer day. Okay, so Fuss About Nothin’ is mostly just that, but I found myself humming to it by the end. When The World Was Round starts with, of all things, an unnerving little hip-hop beat, but when we’re soon overtaken with a sweepingly dreamy wash of a chorus we know we’re back on stable Hunter ground – lyrically it’s a nostalgic reflection on our digital information world. Brainwashed is the only real clunker – an overworked, overlong, mostly annoying rant on media-entranced dumb-asses, but with the title track all of a sudden we’re back in ’79 (or ’73) with a creamy crop of soulful back-up singers preaching redemption and Ian chiming his way back into our hearts with his familiarly elegant piano intros. Soul of America begins with a too-close-for-comfort riff from an old Del Amitri record, and the whole thing sounds a bit like an ironic take on John Mellencamp’s heartland America shtick, but the Dylan-esque harp holds it together, and Ian rights the ship with the next cut, How’s Your House. A cutting condemnation on the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, the song is as swamp-heavy and grinding a cut Ian has laid down since Man O’ War. Guiding Light eerily channels some lighter late-eighties Ronson collaborations, Ian chanting softly "we’ll shoot for the moon together babe". Next up is Stretch, a bit too simplistic chugger that shows Ian can still square his shoulders, heat up the tube amps and bark like a moon dog. The didactic title is the best part of I am What I Hated When I Was Young, a silly little pseudo-honky-tonk toss-off. But Read ‘em ‘n’ Weep finds Ian doing his best Randy Newman, and that ain’t so very bad at all.
All in all, nothing here is going to set what’s left of the rock world on fire – there is no hope of a single – but taken as a whole, "Shrunken Heads" serves as a stalwart summation of the singular talent that is Ian Hunter almost forty years on. The rest of us should dream we could be so relevant at seventy, let alone alive. What can I say? Nobody born after 1969 will give a shit about "Shrunken Heads", but then again, who gives a shit about anybody born after 1969 anyway?
Reviewed by: Kevin Ewing Posted: 2007-05-26 16:30:16
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