Ian Hunter: Defiance, Pt. 1 [Album Review]

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Ian Hunter
Defiance, Pt. 1
Sun Records [2023]

The Fire Note headphone approved

One of the tells among all the other obvious signs that you are getting old, not just older but old, is when a band you remember from your youth hits the road with a “Seven Decades Tour.” Turns out Jethro Tull (remember jamming to “Locomotive Breath” and “Thick as a Brick”?) is touring with only one original member, founding vocalist and flutist Ian Anderson and he’s only 75, so unless he was recording at the age of 4, seven decades may be a bit of a stretch. For reference, Paul McCartney is 80, and Mick Jagger right behind him at 79, so Anderson still has time, although he long ago gave up playing his flute while standing on one leg. Turns out the man in question here, Ian Hunter is 83, and had. Already been playing music professionally for a decade before starting the band Mott the Hoople in 1969 with guitarist Mick Ralphs, who would go on to form Bad Co.

The Motts had already made 4 albums before their breakthrough came, made possible by David Bowie who gave them his song, “All the Young Dudes,” and produced the album by that name in ’74. In 2019, when the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inducted bands like Radiohead, The Cure, Roxy Music, and Def Leppard, they invited Hunter to lead the all-star jam that closed out the night, playing that classic song; such is the goodwill and respect shown to the classic rocker who will never actually be inducted into the Hall himself. And that continued expression of respect and camaraderie can be seen in the lengthy list of special guests who signed on to participate on this, his 21st solo album, Defiance, Pr. 1.

Even though Hunter’s biggest claim to fame came through a song written by Bowie, it’s his talent as a songwriter, as well as a natural performer, that have established his career as a major creative force. He wrote Mott singles that have proved influential on generations of rock artists: “Honaloochie Boogie,” “All the Way from Memphis,” “Roll Away the Stone,” and “Golden Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll” are standouts. Several songs from his solo albums have been hits for other artists, “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” was the band Great White’s most successful airplay single, and his song “England Rocks,” was changed to “Cleveland Rocks” by the band Presidents of United States of America, which became the theme song for the Drew Carey TV series.

The record kicks off with the album’s title track, marked from the get-go by the strong guitar sound of Slash from Guns N’ Roses, with Metallica’s Robert Trujillo on bass. It’s a catchy pop rock track, with Hunter’s smart funny lyrics with rhymes like “insolence” and “I’m still flying by the seat of my pants,” and Slash is playing his heart out throughout the song’s 4 minutes, killer solos and gritty fills to match Hunter’s raspy, spirited vocal. After those years with Ralphs, Hunter spent considerable time with Mick Ronson has his guitar slinger of choice, but the performances throughout this newest release are next level from start to finish.

For “Bed of Roses,” where Hunter sings how “the band played all night long, song after song after song after song,” Ringo Starr turns in a strong drum track that drives the rocker, while Heartbreaker Mike Campbell delivers a strong performance on the solos. “No Hard Feelings” is a slower song, with Hunter singing about how he’s “gonna make a man out of you,” with a strong example of stellar guitar playing from the now, late Jeff Beck, along with Johnny Depp adding to the track. For “Pavlov’s Dog,” Hunter enlists the aid to the three remaining members of Stone Temple Pilots, a rollicking piano rocker, but again guitarist Dean DeLeo is playing full out, while his bandmates give Hunter’s song a classic rock delivery. Clearly, the initial strength and heart of Defiance, Pt. 1 is Hunter’s songs, and his emotionally potent vocal performances, but in track after track, his guest guitarists and support players step up, playing inspired guitar solos, the kind of fun, artful playing that transports the songs to next level offerings.

With all these great guitarists showing off some of their best stuff, you might lose track of Hunter’s songs, but the songwriter is working at the top of his craft as well. In “Guernica,” Hunter speaks in the voice of Pablo Picasso creating one of his greatest paintings, a portrayal of the chaos and violence of the battlefield, which many have interpreted as an anti-war statement. Smartly written about one artist and one work of art, we hear another artist accessing the creative process, the motivation and drive to create a work that makes a bold, lasting statement about our humanity. Hunter even sounds as if he’s imitating Bob Dylan when he sings a line not far removed from “when I paint my masterpiece.” Here, the song’s artful setting is driven forward by a purposeful drum track, and guitarists Campbell and Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott save their solos for the space between vocal verses, offering only brief fills as if to honor this song’s artful construction.

Besides Beck, the other contributor here who has died before this record’s release is Foo Fighter drummer Taylor Hawkins, who plays on three songs on the back side of the album. In the album bio, Hunter reported that although he wasn’t all that well acquainted with Hawkins, the drummer was an eager participant in this project, which was created remotely, with extra players adding their parts to Hunter’s demo recording in their distant studios. For the lengthy jam that grew around the rock ballad, “Angel,” Hawkins enlisted Guns ‘N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan, with Aerosmith guitarist Brad Whitford delivers heartfelt, bluesy solos. For the gritty pop/rock duet with Billy Bob Thornton on “Kiss N’ Make Up,” Hawkins drums with authority, while ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons delivers a bit of the Texas grit in the solos.

The breadth of Hunter’s skill set shows up on “Don’t Tread On Me,” a song with Todd Rundgren adding his production touches and stacked vocals like a church choir, and economic guitar solos, a song that avoids the political context for a celebration of individualism. For more of a political statement, Hunter delivers “I Hate Hate,” a song that appears twice on the 11-track release, the first version backed by Hunter’s regular touring unit, The Rant Band,” and the album closes out with a version where Jeff Tweedy of Wilco adds some muscular guitar fills and gritty solos. It’s another of Hunter’s solid piano-based pop rockers, taking on the divisive animus that fuels too much of our public discourse. “Hate” he sings to the pounding beat, “is tearing us apart,” so he repeats the line “I hate hate,” and in an expression of self-awareness adds at one point, “especially when it’s mine.”

But close to the end, Hunter delivers a statement of purpose in “This Is What I’m Here For.” Even though he says, “I ain’t nothing special, an average kid,” he says “all I wanted a song I could sing, a little music and a band that could swing, these are a few of my favorite things.” Taking on the age question, he adds “when I was 30, I was over the hill/but 50 years later I still kill ‘em all, I ain’t through… I never listen to the prophets of doom/too busy turning up the volume/from the womb to the tomb… this is what I’m here for/so I might as well enjoy it.” And from all the signs, Defiance, Pt. 1, finds Hunter and his all-star collaborators having he time of their lives. Pt. 2 is promised to follow, which will similarly feature a crew of world-class special guests, says Hunter, but likely “heavier and more political.”

As for those prophets of doom who keep declaring that “rock is dead,” Ian Hunter stands alongside Jagger & Richards, and McCartney to testify that they and this music are still quite alive and kicking.

“Bed Of Roses” / “Defiance” / “No Hard Feelings”

The Rolling Stones / David Bowie / Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers

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Brian Q. Newcomb

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