Strings Attached

Ian Hunter

Universal, 2003

http://www.ianhunter.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 04/28/2009

When you’ve had as many collections and live albums of your work issued as Ian Hunter has, the measure of another quickly becomes, “is there anything new or unusual or special here that separates this one from the pack?”

In the case of Strings Attached, the answer is an unequivocal “yes.”

Now, you might think that would be because he’s playing with an orchestra, in Oslo, Norway -- but that’s merely stating the obvious.  There’s as much that’s familiar about the logistical end of things -- for example, a core band of Norwegian session players that includes several featured on Hunter’s 1996 album The Artful Dodger – as there is that’s different.

No, what’s unique enough about this album to make it essential is the tracklist.  For while there are some trusty nuggets for sure – what would an IH show be without a run at “All The Way From Memphis” or “Once Bitten Twice Shy”? – the setlist from this show is riddled with surprises from the very start.

After all, it’s probably been several decades (if ever) since Hunter opened a show with the solemn ballad “Rest In Peace,” a fairly obscure b-side relic from his Mott The Hoople days.  The strings add some nice flourishes to it, but perhaps a better measure of the uniqueness of this disc is what follows.  In its original 1983 incarnation, Hunter’s “All Of The Good Ones Are Taken” was an over-produced, overly-slick and rather tiresome pop trifle.  With all the 80s excess stripped away and the song laid bare with just acoustic instruments and a restrained, tasteful string arrangement, “All” is suddenly revealed as a beautifully wistful piece of self-reflection.nbtc__dv_250

Various Mott and Hunter classics (“I Wish I Was Your Mother,” “Boy,” “All The Young Dudes,” “Ships,” “Roll Away The Stone”) get handsome airings, but you also get rare one-offs such as Hunter’s typically brilliant take on 9/11, “Twisted Steel,” which he introduces with classic Liverpudlian deadpan: “I’m looking at this (his wife losing her cousin at the World Trade Center) and – people write songs about this?  It was just beyond me, it was beyond songwriting, it was hopeless, it was just totally absurd – [pause for effect] -- so I wrote a song about it.”  And what a song.  Bruce Springsteen, for all his passion and sincerity, never wrote a song that gets as close to the heart of what 9/11 was and meant and felt like as “Twisted Steel” does.

Less notable but equally rare at the time were the somber Mott ballad “Waterlow,” the steady-rocking “Rollerball” and the old-school cover “A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square.”  Introducing the latter, Hunter head-fakes the crowd with a story about how the producer encouraged him to include some covers and Dylan’s name naturally came up.  At which point Hunter went a completely different direction… that’s IH for you.

The autobiographical rocker “23A Swan Hill” gets a forceful airing with the strings only embellishing the majesty of the song, as they do also to the quieter counterpart “Irene Wilde” (which, much like on Welcome To The Club, is marred by a few morons in the crowd who can’t manage to shut their yaps in the quiet sections… grow some manners, would you please?!).  The one that brings down the house, though, is Hunter’s tribute to fallen brother-in-arms Mick Ronson.  As exquisite as “Michael Picasso” was in its acoustic-and-vocals-only studio version on The Artful Dodger, with strings adding a billowing emotionality to the song as it’s played in front of a reverent and (finally) silent audience, it’s just shatteringly gorgeous, especially the unexpectedly dramatic bridge/solo section and the closing verse and chorus which follows.

Another nice touch comes when Hunter closes things out with Mott’s final 1974 single “Saturday Gigs,” a terrific song that’s received far too few airings over the years and sounds as grand and melancholy and essential as it ever has.  It’s a beautiful epilogue to a beautiful evening’s worth of music that puts the spotlight on the melodic core – and even moreso, the bracing honesty and integrity – of Hunter’s songs.  If you’ve always wanted to hear a rock artist play with an orchestra and do it right, really make it into something special and surprise you with his/her/their choices, you should do yourself a favor and pick up Strings Attached.

Rating: A

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