There are some in the musical profession who fly under the radar for most of their career. Oh, occasionally they levitate upward to show the free world that they do exist, but those moments are just that—moments. Then, they nosedive back down to the underground, which is crowded by nature with similar brethren: talented, but just enough to find a niche audience. It certainly is unfair, compared to the crap that stays above the radar, but conversely, once these sub-rosa artists/bands are discovered, they open up a whole new musical pathway to explore.
One such dude (pun fully intended) is Ian Hunter. For those who have aged a bit, the name rings a bell—Mott the Hoople, anybody? Yeah, Hunter (whose real name is Ian Hunter Patterson) sang, and played guitar and keyboards for the Hoople in the early ‘70s. (He’s soon to be 68 years old!) Mott the Hoople had two major hits in the States: “All the Young Dudes”, a tune written and produced for the band by David Bowie, and the rollicking “All the Way from Memphis”, complete with killer sax solo.
Shortly thereafter, the band fell apart, and Hunter flew solo. His debut eponymous album (released in 1975), spawned one huge hit in “Once Bitten, Twice Shy”. But since then, Hunter had one shining moment in the sun when in 1979, he released the brilliant You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic, which was arranged and produced by his late sidekick/guitarist Mick Ronson. (Notable songs on Schizophrenic include “Cleveland Rocks”, “Just Another Night”, “When the Daylight Comes”, and “Bastard”.)
After a few more albums, Hunter gave up the business of music for a lengthy stretch, going 14 years between studio releases, and 18 years between releases in the U.S. His underrated 2001 release Rant brought him back into the fold, and that brings us to his current release, Shrunken Heads.
Hunter still hasn’t lost his trademarks: his bushy, nearly Afro-styled hair, his sunglasses, his charming growly voice, and his sarcastic, cynical, funny lyrical bent. Many artists tend to throw one of their strongest tracks in the leadoff position on the disc, and in Hunter’s case, one would think it would be a rocker. El wrongo! “Words (Big Mouth)”, the first of 11 musical odysseys, features a mid-tempo tune that musically sounds like a mash-up of Springsteen and Mellencamp. The charm and irony of the song is that Hunter’s apology for opening his “big mouth” comes across not as a scream, but more like a quiet resignation. By nature, people who admit to being loud admit it in a loud tone of voice, just to prove their point. Hunter’s 180-degree turn on the delivery makes the song so appealing. (Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy makes a guest appearance as a backing vocalist.)
Rockers and ballads are mixed throughout the rest of the album, and the best thing you can say about the ballads is that they’re listenable. “Fuss About Nothin’ ” is a catchy rocker, while “When the World was Round” is grandiose without the pomposity. “Brainwashed” could qualify as a headbanger, except you’d be laughing too much at the lyrics. “Stretch” is another compelling rocker, while “I Am What I Hated When I was Young” is—and sit down for this—Ian Hunter’s first country tune (replete with banjo and slide guitar), and I’ll be damned if it’s not the most catchy song on the album.
Ian Hunter has done it again. He’s made a very impressive, eclectic album in Shrunken Heads, and it comes without compromise as to what makes Hunter so good. His voice and playing (piano on most tracks) are still strong, and his lyrics have not lost one iota of edge. His backing band, including guitarists Jack Petruzelli and Andy York, and Joe Jackson bassist Graham Maby add to the strength of the album. Ian Hunter continues to surprise by just being himself, and Shrunken Heads is well worth the wait between sporadic releases.
// Notes from the Road
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