TMR Music Review: Ian Hunter’s Man Overboard

cover_man-over-boardNow that Mott The Hoople is reuniting (perhaps Sean “Never Say Never Again” Connery should M.C. the show?) a solo album from the usually unpredictable lead vocalist of that underappreciated British ensemble is the inadvertent prelude to that long-awaited Hoople get together.   

Track 2 should have been Track 1, an exploding pop treasure with the unlikely title of “Arms & Legs”.   C’mon, Ian, this is one of your finest moments, why would you not give a great title like “Ghostly Shadow” or another line from the poetry “If You Want To Know What Love Is?” – so many great lyrics that need a little bit more positive exploitation they won’t get when the title is as innocuous as “Arms & Legs”.

Indeed, the album Man Overboard would be enhanced greatly with an extended mix of this wonderful track (as well as the original that I’m chatting about).  The dilemma is a problem which stretches across the entire album, the third part of a trilogy started with Rant and followed-up by the studio-disc-in-the-middle, Shrunken Heads.   Though Strings Attached and Live at the Astoria were stellar efforts, they still were live albums with just a tad of new material.  In any event, “Arms & Legs” is the track I keep going back to after about a hundred spins of this disc which has been a most challenging record to review.  In fact, this is my second go-round at working to communicate to our readers what Ian Hunter’s newest release means to this long, long-time fan.

Jefferson Airplane author (and TMRZoo contributor) Craig Fenton asked me how good Man Overboard would be if it was a first album from an unknown band.  It’s not a fair question, the album would be, hands-down, a superb first effort for an act looking to break in and develop an audience.  But it’s Ian Hunter playing John Cougar Mellancamp playing Lou Reed solo (when the rest of the world was playing Lou Reed from his Velvet Underground era). Now that’s not to say the entire disc is Cougar-ized by guitarist Andy York, but the sound is so prevalent that it gets in the way.  To those of us who understood Mick Ronson’s illustrious guitar-work having a perfect bridge from Bowie to Hunter the addition of Andy York is not the kind of sentiment Mott The Hoople/Hunter fans appreciate.  

 Steve Hunter from Alice Cooper/Lou Reed, or his partner Dick Wagner, or John Till from Janis Joplin’s Kozmic Blues and Full Tilt Boogie bands, now these are axe-men who can bring a distinct edge to Hunter’s sound.  Mick Taylor from The Rolling Stones is another one who could bring a majesty that is there in the title track, but not “drunk and disorderly” enough for rock and roll fans who follow Ian Hunter because he mesmerized us so with brilliant moments on those four Island Records/Atco releases culminating in the pure chaos that was the immortal Brain Capers.

Yes, it’s a “treacherous sea” and the music doesn’t reflect the intriguing story behind the song “Man Overboard”.   Now just as Ray Davies can throw that chord from out of left field into his songwriting to catch listeners (and musicians) off guard, thee’s a superbly understated “Way With Words” on track 10 that ranks among Hunter’s best work – either solo or with Mott. “Way With Words” and “Arms & Legs” are two extraordinary musical works and the production/arrangement  by York/Hunter is exactly what should have been instilled onto each and every track of this uneven album.  Sure “These Feelings” and “Flowers” (like an out-take from The Rolling Stones classic American album of the same name) and the five and a half minute closing track, “River Of Tears”, top notch stuff.    Man Overboard has much to offer, but it is time that Ian Hunter brought his own identity back front and center.  Andy York’s conscious or subconscious filtering of John Cougar Mellancamp throughout this recording is like having The Rolling Stones copy David Cassidy or asking Bob Dylan to find inspiration from Tom Petty’s watered-down emulation of Zimmerman’s original stylings.   “River Of Tears” has masterpiece potential except that the opening verse’s make you want to sing “I was born in a small town…” – and to the fans of Hunter and Mott that is unacceptable.

It’s one thing to find yourself a “man overboard” because a wave hit during a storm, another when you find out that Mellancamp has pirated the ship and won’t let go of the steering wheel.