CD reviews

READY TO DIE, by Iggy and the Stooges; LIFE ON A ROCK, by Kenny Chesney; BROOKLYN BABYLON, by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society

By Jon Pareles, Jon Caramanica and Nate Chinen  /  NY Times News Service

Tue, May 07, 2013 - Page 12

READY TO DIE

Iggy and the Stooges

Fat Possum

Iggy Pop circles back four decades with Ready to Die, collaborating anew with the surviving Stooges who made Raw Power, the 1973 album that was belatedly recognized as a protopunk landmark. Ready to Die is more historically self-conscious than Raw Power; no doubt deliberately, it runs less than a minute longer than the 34-minute Raw Power LP. But its attitude stays brash.

Ready to Die reunites Iggy with the guitarist James Williamson; they wrote the songs on Raw Power together. But soon afterward, in 1974, the Stooges disintegrated amid drugs, audience hostility and band conflicts. Although Williamson helped write and produce Iggy’s solo albums until 1980, their collaboration ended acrimoniously. Williamson turned to electrical engineering and eventually became vice president of technology standards for Sony.

Iggy regrouped a Stooges lineup with Ron Asheton on guitar, in 2003, and after Asheton died in 2009, Williamson rejoined the Stooges, his return to performing after more than 30 years. For Ready to Die, the band also includes Scott Asheton (Ron’s brother) on drums, from the original Stooges, with a post-punk admirer, Mike Watt from the Minutemen and Firehose, on bass.

Iggy has dipped into many styles through the years; on his 2012 album, Apres, he made himself a retro French chanteur. But Ready to Die does exactly what’s expected of a Stooges album.

Drums kick, guitar riffs churn and Iggy taunts and sneers at the world, terse and unbridled. “I’m a hanging judge of the world I’m in,” he declares in the album’s title song. In longtime Iggy style, the songs set out to push hot buttons, with titles like Burt, Sex and Money and Dirty Deal (snarling about a recording contract). Yet while Iggy leers dutifully in DD’s, he’s not the rampaging libido he was on Raw Power. Now, at 66 (and still going shirtless onstage), he’s got things on his mind like the economy — “I got a job but it don’t pay” he barks in Job — and the violence in American culture; “Murderers can stand their ground/ain’t nobody else around,” he sings in Gun.

But it’s the Stooges sound that carries the album: Williamson’s riffs, guitars and old-school production. The beat has the muscle and fluctuations of a live rhythm section. The rhythm and lead guitars keep a distorted edge and they grapple and claw their way through the songs, affirming that the Stooges were as much post-Rolling Stones as pre-punk. As on Raw Power, the band sometimes allows itself to slow down: in The Departed, a tribute to Ron Asheton, and in Unfriendly World. In those songs, Williamson deploys his acoustic and slide guitars and Iggy turns melodic and sage: “Is it worth this pain to grow?/I guess I’ll never know.” Iggy and the Stooges know they aren’t wild kids any more, but they’re not going away quietly.

— JON PARELES, NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

LIFE ON A ROCK

Kenny Chesney

Blue Chair/Columbia Nashville

To hear Kenny Chesney tell it, Life on a Rock is a placeholder between the sort of albums that made him one of the biggest country stars of the first decade of the 2000s, albums filled with churning Americana rock and lilting country-beach-bum anthems. Chesney is a superstar, the idea goes, and therefore can do what he wants.

Except when he can’t, of course. This album’s single, the lumpy and cheerful Pirate Flag, sounds like it could have belonged to any Chesney album of the last few years and is one of two songs on this album on which he has no writing credit.

An example of the man holding the famously chill Chesney down, right? A forced return to his pigeonhole?

Maybe a helpful assist, actually. Pirate Flag has a pulse, unlike much of the rest of this album, much of which was written by Chesney, who is partial to long walks on the beach, acoustic ballads, nonlinear storytelling and lines that don’t always rhyme. The results are mostly dismal, making for the sort of album that reinforces faith in big, lumbering institutions that understand starmaking.

Partnering with professional songwriters helps a bit, like on the tense and whimsical Must Be Something I Missed: “I wake up in the morning just making a fist/I don’t call it living, I just exist.”

But left to his own devices, Chesney veers uncomfortably maudlin on Happy on the Hey Now (A Song for Kristi); dabbles in roots reggae on Spread the Love, featuring the Wailers and Elan; and actually titles a song Marley, name-checking several Bob Marley songs over steel drums.

The bar Chesney reminisces about on When I See This Bar sounds far less interesting than the one in Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar. And Lindy is an accidentally condescending song about a seemingly homeless person — “No one knows his last name/ But I believe he’s the salt of the earth/Just look past his dirty shirt.” Worse still, it’s not even the best country song about a seemingly homeless person; it’s tougher to swallow than even Craig Morgan’s awkward and unsettling Almost Home.

— JON CARAMANICA, NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BROOKLYN BABYLON

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society

New Amsterdam

Brooklyn Babylon, the monumentally ambitious new album by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, opens with the dull machine-rumble of an elevated subway train, echoing somewhere in the middle distance. About half a minute in, a cohort of brass kicks up an Eastern European ruckus, setting the scene and establishing a theme. The track is simply titled Prologue, and it’s both tantalizing and a little worrisome.

Argue, a resourceful young composer from Brooklyn — by way of an upbringing in Vancouver and training at the New England Conservatory of Music — has one previous album with Secret Society, his 18-piece big band. There was no outside agenda on that album, Infernal Machines, though it managed to make a few salient points, mainly about the acres of untapped possibility in what might look like an antiquated format.

The music on Brooklyn Babylon, on the other hand, comes loaded with subtext: Argue originally created it in collaboration with Danijel Zezelj, an artist and animator, as part of the 2011 Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Their multimedia piece suggested an urban fable, revolving around issues of gentrification and artistic integrity. That’s a lot to compress into album form, and so the question here is whether Argue and crew were able to make the music stand on its own.

Short answer: yes. Fittingly, for an artistic endeavor so obsessed with the act of building — one of its most dynamic tracks is Construction (PLUS) Destruction — this album looms with sturdy intent. That theme unfurled at its outset serves as a functional motif, around which many others race and swirl. (The album was produced by Argue with Brian Montgomery, who also did stunning work as its recording and mixing engineer.)

And while there’s always some narrative implication in the music, it’s never too elusive to grasp. You don’t need a codebook to understand Builders, which begins with scurrying movements and then hunkers down in bombast, with Ingrid Jensen’s echo-processed trumpet crying out as a lone, anguished voice.

Argue, 37, has consistently drawn praise for bringing the established language of big-band writing, especially as exemplified by his former teacher Bob Brookmeyer, into meaningful contact with aspects of postminimalism and indie-rock. There’s more of that here, most strikingly on The Neighborhood, which borrows a strobing piano part, a disco beat and eventually an electric bass line from the LCD Soundsystem song All My Friends. A track called Coney Island incorporates both a minimalist piano repetition, played by Gordon Webster, and a distorted guitar solo, by Sebastian Noelle.

Noelle also plays one of seven roughly minute-long interludes — Interlude (HASHTAG)5 Unmoored, based on a Croatian folk song — alone on acoustic guitar. It leads into Missing Parts, a percussive and pointillist exercise with solos from the trombonist James Hirschfeld and the baritone saxophonist Josh Sinton, as well as Erica von Kleist on piccolo and Nadje Noordhuis on flugelhorn. It’s the album’s most action-packed five minutes, a good distillation of what makes this band, and Argue’s vision, so vital and absorbing. It also restates that opening melody: thematic coherence, at no extra cost.

— NATE CHINEN, NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE