Iggy Pop, 'Skull Ring' (Virgin) ; David Bowie, 'Reality' (Columbia)

5
Skull Ring
Critical Mass
Label: Virgin

by Keith Harris

Iggy Pop may be a perpetually writhing mass of sinew onstage, but no one has ever accused him of busting his ass in the studio.That's not entirely a bad thing -- 1999's gruesomely introspective, jazz-inflected Avenue B proved that he could be less interesting when he put his back into it than when he didn't try at all.

Skull Ring flails along the same path as 2001's casually brutal return to formlessness, Beat Em Up, with Iggy's wry disdain typified on the self-explanatory shrug "Whatever." Although Sum 41 sound as out of place here as Medeski Martin & Wood did on Avenue B, the other guest appearances are ace: Peaches outposes her elder on "Motor Inn," original Stooges Ron and Scott Asheton batter and churn like old times, and Green Day add some sprightly spunk. Iggy's quips and disses ("Get a job in street promotion /Pushin' handbills on the ocean") still have the offhand grace of a Jay-Z cameo, and his ability to make these rudimentary guitar stomps sound careless and effortless is so engaging that you're two-thirds of the way through the record before you stop to ask why he bothered. Then you remember- he didn't.

Iggy's old Berlin nightclubbing companion David Bowie has always tried too hard. Unable to fake spontaneity like a real rock star, he's made a virtue of artificiality, excusing his awkwardness as a spaceman's unfamiliarity with terrestrial customs. But in the '90s, he couldn't nail down a context from which to feel alienated; instead, he took desperate stabs at rock opera (Outside) and grafted-on drum'n'bass (Earthling).

By contrast, Reality is a relaxed, even graceful affair, the work of a gentleman hobbyist tinkering with sounds and styles before retiring to his study. Only when he tackles the Modern Lovers' "Pablo Picasso" (and ruins it with ersatz Spanish guitar) or muddles through the ghastly, eight-minute "Bring Me the Disco King" does he seem nervous and blustery. It's been just over a year since Bowie's last album, Heathen, so maybe he hasn't had time to overthink. Here's hoping he stays busy.

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