Ian Hunter Never Gets Old
Ian Hunter’s new album When I’m President is the good rock record that the Stones should have made this year (or around 1986, for that matter) but didn’t. It’s hard to believe that the former Mott the Hoople frontman, somebody who’s collaborated with everyone from John Cale to Mick Ronson to the Clash’s Mick Jones, is now past seventy. But Hunter is absolutely undiminished as both a frontman and a songwriter. On the mic, his rasp is as relentless as ever, and his poison pen still kills: as a stinging, surrealist wordsmith, Hunter still has few rivals. As usual, he plays acoustic guitar and piano here, backed by the Rant Band: Mark Bosch and James Mastro on guitars, Paul Page on bass and Steve Holley on drums, with Andy Burton on keys and Andy York (of John Mellencamp’s band and Mary Lee’s Corvette) adding subtle shades of guitar, some keys, and instruments like baritone guitar and dulcitar.
The music here chugs along with a familiar, Stonesy growl: if Keith Richards could be cloned, he’d sound like them. Mastro plays in the left channel, Bosch in the right, firing off the occasional solo with expert command of five decades worth of rock styles. The catchiest song on the album is the title track (available from Hunter as a free download). With its familiar janglerock melody and an irresistibly funny allusion to a certain “classic” rock riff, Hunter defiantly takes a stand with the 99% against the fat cats: “Still whining about your bonus? Man up, you’re ridiculous…” But as much as trying to buck the system may be like “the pit and the pendulum,” it ends optimistically.
With another amusing allusion to a well-known song (this one from the new wave era), What For is a rant worthy of any other in Hunter’s vast back catalog, a slap upside the head of a clueless conformist, suggesting a break from the cellphone in exchange for “a little recreational skulldiving.” Likewise, the big, dramatic 6/8 anthem I Don’t Know What You Want takes a jaundiced look at generational dissonance.
Other tracks work a psychopathological vein over a roaring backdrop. Bosch channels David Gilmour with an searing, angst-fueled solo in Black Tears, a kiss-off to a psychic vampire, that faux melancholy being “just another weapon in your arsenal of fear.” There’s also a Pink Floyd influence in the suspensefully percussive Ta Shunka Witco (Crazy Horse), the Indian warrior out for revenge anthem against those “paid by the rich to steal from the poor.” The down-and-out junkie in Saint, a pretty standard-issue garage rock number, rails that “I ain’t no saint but I could never be you.” And Fatally Flawed gets a crushing crescendo on the first verse and an all-too-brief, screaming Bosch solo: “Lookit that trainwreck, purring like a Cadillac,” Hunter snarls.
The other tracks include Just the Way You Look Tonight, a casually majestic anthem that’s a dead ringer for Willie Nile, lit up by Mastro’s mandolin ; The Wild Bunch, a bankrobber ballad with saloon piano by Burton and an unexpected gospel choir; the rakishly seductive Comfortable (Flyin’ Scotsman), with some cool syncopation to fit the lyrics at the end as the chorus stretches out; and the surprisingly upbeat, amusing closing track: “Did you blow it on Myspace, did you twitter when you was clean outta your face?” Hunter wants to know. At this point in his career, his greatest shining moment is still Rant, his savage 2001 response to creeping fascism in the wake of 9/11. But this is a clinic in good tunesmithing and good playing from a bunch of guys who’ve been there and done that, and are still there and still doing it as well or even better than before. One of the best albums of 2012: long live Ian Hunter.