Music Reviews
10:30 am
Tue September 4, 2012

When Ian Hunter Is 'President'

Originally published on Thu September 6, 2012 1:54 pm

Recently, I was listening to a new tribute album covering the songs of Fleetwood Mac, and thought once again how dreadful most tribute albums are: They don't add much to the legacy of the artists being saluted, while inadvertently freezing vital old music in an amber of sentimentality. Then I turned to When I'm President, an album of new songs by Ian Hunter. Hunter's band Mott the Hoople put out its first album in 1969; Fleetwood Mac made its debut just a year before, in '68. But Hoople co-leader Ian Hunter would have no use for a tribute album; now in his 70s, he's too busy making prickly, energetic new music that both culls from the past and resides merrily in the present.

"All hail rock 'n' roll / Why don't we slip into something more comfortable," Hunter sings toward the end of "Comfortable." What that means for him is everything from Jerry Lee Lewis piano chords from his backing group here, an assortment of session pros dubbed Rant Band, to the Bob Dylan-style vehemence of "Black Tears." In that one, the emissions from a woman's eyes are called, in a nice turn of phrase, "tiny little accusations trickling down your face."

Hunter spent part of his Mott the Hoople years expressing a British man's yearning for the freedom of America, mythologizing cities in a song such as "All the Way from Memphis" or, on an early solo album, "Cleveland Rocks." On his new album, he has a song called "Wild Bunch," and if you're wondering whether he's invoking the all-American Sam Peckinpah film, the references to outlaws and a quick verse from a hymn used in that movie ("Shall we gather at the river") dispels any doubt. Which leads, inevitably, to that most American of themes here: the title song. Being British-born, Hunter can't really occupy the presidency, but he can have fun imagining, as he puts it, leaning on the 1 percent to get elected and seeing his grizzled old mug on Mount Rushmore.

Hunter's dodgy moments here include a song sung from the point of view of the Native American Crazy Horse, and a Bruce Springsteen-y sing-along called "Just The Way You Look Tonight" at the moment when he makes the phrase "only two lovers could tell" rhyme with "in-ev-i-ta-ble." On second thought, I kind of love the stretch he exerts to try and make that work. That's the thing with Ian Hunter these days — he's at once crafty and mindful of craft, striving mightily to make his music seem tossed off. Which is what the best pop musicians of any age do; he should give Carly Rae Jepsen a call and do a duet, maybe.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Ian Hunter has just released his 20th studio album and that's not counting the ones he made with the band that made him famous, Mott the Hoople. Despite the title of his new album, "When I'm President," Hunter has said the album isn't nearly as political as his past couple of solo albums. Rock critic Ken Tucker says Hunter's new music reaches back into rock's past while linking it firmly to the present.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

IAN HUNTER: (Singing) I had enough of them plastic bags. You can't read them anyways. You can't watch them. You can't listen. Trash television. Trash television. I had enough of counting sheep. Buying that magazine, read 'em and weep. What you read is what you know. Down around a letter, you got to write a letter home.

KEN TUCKER: Recently, I was listening to a new tribute album covering the songs of Fleetwood Mac, and thought once again how dreadful most tribute albums are. How they not only don't add much to the legacy of the artists being saluted, the covers inadvertently freeze vital old music in an amber of sentimentality.

Then I turned to "When I'm President," an album of new songs by Ian Hunter. Hunter's band Mott the Hoople put out its first album in 1969; Fleetwood Mac made its debuted just a year before, in '68. But Hoople co-leader Ian Hunter would have no use for a tribute album. Now in his 70s, he's too busy making prickly, energetic new music that both culls from the past and resides merrily in the present.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMFORTABLE")

HUNTER: (Singing) Imagination is all in the mind. Why don't you come up and see me sometime? I get, we get on the floor and we can slip into something more comfortable. Imagination's up in the air. You want stretch it, it'll go anywhere. I bet those twins ain't authentical(ph). Why don't we slip into something more comfortable? What's that sound? What's that sound? The Flying Scotsman's back in town. Can you hear that lonesome whistle call? Why don't you slip into something more comfortable?

TUCKER: All hail rock 'n' roll, why don't we slip into something more comfortable, Hunter sings toward the end of that song. What that means for him is everything from Jerry Lee Lewis piano chords from his backing group here - an assortment of session pros dubbed the Rant Band - to the Bob Dylan-style vehemence of "Black Tears." In that one, the emissions from a woman's eyes are called, in a nice turn of phrase, tiny little accusations trickling down your face.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACK TEARS")

HUNTER: (Singing) Black tears fall (unintelligible) just another weapon in your arsenal of fear, little beads of misery that kill me when you cry. Let me the kiss the circles better underneath your eye. Black tears dancing in the rain. You can't see me stop them. Here they come again. It ain't funny when the levee breaks you could drown a river, baby. You could raise the rain.

(Singing) I watch your blue eyes turning into green eyes. I watch your green eyes turning into sad eyes. Yeah. I watch your sad eyes turning into red eyes. I watch your red eyes turning into black eyes.

TUCKER: Hunter spent part of his Mott the Hoople years expressing a British man's yearning for the freedom of America, mythologizing cities in a song such as "All the Way from Memphis" or, on an early solo album, "Cleveland Rocks."

On his new album, he has a song called "Wild Bunch," and if you wondered whether he's invoking the all-American Sam Peckinpah film, the references to outlaws and a quick verse from a hymn used in that movie - "Shall We Gather at the River" dispels any doubt. Which leads, inevitably, to that most American of themes here, the title song "When I'm President."

Being British-born, Hunter can't really occupy the office, but he can have fun imagining, as he puts it, leaning on the 1 percent to get elected and seeing his grizzled old mug on Mount Rushmore.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN I'M PRESIDENT")

HUNTER: (Singing) Well, mother, I'm a stranger in a strange land. I feel like an alien. It's like I'm on the outside looking in. I don't seem to fit in. Well, maybe I'm Aladdin with a rusty lamp. The genie never stood a chance to make all my wishes come true but here's what I want to do.

(Singing) I'm going to lean on the 1 percent when I'm president. I want a 20 acre (unintelligible) when I'm president.

GROSS: Hunter's dodgy moments on this album are songs sung from the point of view of the Native American Crazy Horse, and a Bruce Springsteen-y sing-along called "Just The Way You Look Tonight" at the moment when he makes the phrase only two lovers could tell rhyme with in-ev-i-ta-ble. On second thought, I kind of love the stretch he exerts to try and make that work.

TUCKER: That's the thing with Ian Hunter these days. He's at once crafty and mindful of craft, striving mightily to make his music seem tossed off. Which is what the best pop musicians of any age do. He should give Carly Rae Jepsen a call and do a duet, maybe.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed the new album "When I'm President" by Ian Hunter. You can download podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org, and you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nrpfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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