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Wednesday, June 6, 2007 01:02 am

Rock’s romantic

Ian Hunter’s back, at age 67, with another fine album

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Ian Hunter Shrunken Heads (Yep Roc)
Untitled Document At 67, perennial cult hero Ian Hunter isn’t likely to snag the mainstream fame that has eluded him for 40 years. The former Mott the Hoople frontman has always been something of a late bloomer — he was already in his thirties when he sang his first and biggest hit, a cover of David Bowie’s “All the Young Dudes” — and his post-Mott output has been sporadic, to say the least. After a relatively steady stream of solo albums, more than a decade elapsed before the appearance of 2001’s Rant; he let another six years slip by before relinquishing Shrunken Heads, his 12th studio recording. In light of Hunter’s advanced years and somewhat desultory work habits, his latest might well be his last. But who are we to be so greedy? The man who graced Western culture with two of the most gorgeous, generous, heartbreaking rock ballads of all time, “I Wish I Was Your Mother” and “Laugh at Me” (a Sonny Bono cover, of all things), doesn’t owe us squat. Nothing on Shrunken Heads is as sublime as the aforementioned songs, but it’s still a fine album, one that fully exploits Hunter’s considerable gifts. His signature baritone, a scratchy, Dylanesque drawl that resides midway between Delta juke joint and London pub, is sturdy and sure, his lyrics sharply observed and bitingly delivered. Although his British accent hasn’t diminished during his lengthy residence in the States, Shrunken Heads has a pronounced 1980s-Americana cast, a boomerish heartland vibe that’s underscored by the contributions of producer Andy York, a longtime John Mellencamp sideman, and E-Street Band violinist Soozie Tyrell. The subject matter is also distinctly American: “How’s Your House,” a primitive bar-blooze rave-up, rips on FEMA’s lame response to Hurricane Katrina, and “Soul of America,” which sounds like an outtake from Born in the U.S.A., takes up the war in Iraq. Shrunken Heads is more than a bunch of broadsides, however. “Words (Big Mouth),” one of three tracks featuring Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy on backing vocals, is a loose-limbed and lazy plea for forgiveness, and “Guiding Light,” an organ-laced valentine, proves that Hunter is still the reigning champion of big romantic rock ballads. The CD closes with “Read ’Em ’n’ Weep,” a spectral piano epic that conflates lost love, lost youth, and lost chances in couplets such as “The paper’s full of January sales/ I guess I won’t be buying fairytales.” The old dude might be carrying some different news these days, but he’s as relevant as ever.  

Although lazy critics lump her in with labelmate Norah Jones on account of her sex and her small, smoky warble, Keren Ann Zeidel has more in common with Leonard Cohen, the Jewish/Buddhist saint of wry romanticism. Since her first English-language release, 2003’s exquisite Not Going Anywhere, the polyglot expat has solidified her standing as the Lady Cohen with songs whose lapidary lyrics and deceptively simple melodies reveal the mystery at the core of everyday life. Keren Ann, Zeidel’s third domestic release, is no exception. Although the CD’s surface is placid, the undercurrent will suck you under before you realize what’s happening. The agnostic lullaby “It’s All a Lie” pits Zeidel’s drowsy murmur against a queasy electric guitar and a lackadaisical cymbal. The sprightly, handclap-peppered first single, “Lay Your Head Down,” whips silken strings, honking harmonica, a twanging guitar, and intricately spliced vocal samples into a delectable concoction of Velvet Underground-inspired dirge-pop. All the songs, from the uncharacteristically grungy blues-rock burlesque of “It Ain’t No Crime” to the Philip Glass-meets-Burt Bacharach chorale of “Liberty,” linger like summertime shadows, elusive, slight, and surpassingly strange.

Contact René Spencer Saller at rssaller@core.com.
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