Punk rock purists might argue that The Stooges and Radio Birdman are not cut from the same cloth. But, guitarist James Williamson co-wrote the classic Raw Power album with the incendiary Iggy Pop, and soon after, Michigan born guitarist Deniz Tek co-founded Sydney hard rock cult Radio Birdman.
Both acts had a seminal, pioneering influence on the punk scene globally. Now, without going into a mammoth punk rock history lesson and the various personnel machinations, reunions, internal dramas and the realities of demanding alternate careers, it’s great to see Tek and Williamson join forces again.
This album, Two to One, is almost like the old guard meets the older guard, and the mutual respect within the collaboration is evident. Even as music industry veterans in a variety of senses, they both still retain a defiant attitude. Yet this is not an overly confronting project, rather, a cool and subtly subversive outing with a typically no-nonsense approach with musical references to their benchmark setting musical origins.
Recorded mostly in Sausalito and mixed in San Francisco, Two to One has an urgent feel to it but with tinges of psychedelia, as the primarily raw, partially atonal album barrels along at pace. Completed for mastering just as COVID-19 shutdown hit, the existence of the album is a stroke of lucky timing. Given Tek resides in Hawaii and Williamson alternates between there and California, the vast majority of recordings and rehearsals were able to be undertaken within what unknowingly soon became a slim window of opportunity. LA based label Cleopatra Records stumped up the cash to make the project happen and it is safe to say that this investment should pay off well, having just dodged the pandemic’s hand of fate, in this instance.
Opening with the swaggering Jet Pack Nightmare, co-written by Williamson and Paul Nelson Kimball [Careless Hearts], the riffs and boogie vibe kick in quickly, with Tek’s vocals latent with attitude and a slight snarl. The rhythm section of drummer Michael Urbano [Todd Rundgren, Cracker, John Hiatt] and bassist Michael Scanland have an instant chemistry with the material. As the album progresses, stylistic variations of the guitar parts by Williamson and Tek become evident but each complements the other, be it with rhythm figures or solo sections.
Progress is the first of five tracks on the album written by Tek and complete with slicing chords, has a simple rock guitar vibe that utilises different tones through attack, tastefully. Tek’s lead guitar part follows a succinct melody line which is generally his approach to solos. It’s expressive but suitably restrained to keep the song kicking along swiftly, with lyricism steeped in escapism and a carefree life approach.
Changing pace, the next track Take a Look Around has a subdued yet slightly upbeat feel and being penned by both Williamson and Frank Meyer [Streetwalkin’ Cheetahs], it shows how adaptable Tek is at singing and playing on songs presented to him. Backing vocals from Petra Haden and Andrea Wasse add a certain Pixies/Breeders type of arrangement. The pace kicks in again with Tek’s Good as Gone, delivering a direct but slower, creeping rock shuffle, as chord hits sustain with a nice breaking distortion tone. Twin guitar figures and chords backing the melody and a dash of nifty soloing with a grooving rhythm section outro make for a tasty track.
The next track, Stable, is an album highlight and n apt choice for the first single. A full wall of rhythm guitars and overall grittiness segues into a good, catchy chorus, before returning to riff, delivering some aggression and a simple keyboard part from Nicholas Francis Stein. The dynamics of the project’s production are clear within this song and it works well. Climate Change is one of three tracks on the album where Tek and Williamson combined their song writing prowess and even with a somewhat cynical, Doomsday lyricism, the rolling guitar figure over the powering rhythm track is something fans of punk rock should enjoy. A simple chorus and guitar parts alternating between ringing out to muted riffing gives this track energy and pace.
However, it is Tek’s Birthday Party that is sure to be a highlight for Radio Birdman enthusiasts with a galloping approach, slightly reminiscent of Aloha Steve and Danno and a dash of Hammond organ. The production is tight and the track briskly ends with a guitar outro figure, backed by swelling keyboard and quick rhythm section sounds. It contrasts with the droll Americana feel of the Tek, Williamson and Meyer co-written Small Change, which has some deftly added flavour via harmonica from Tek. Two tracks written by Tek ensue and are both excellent in their own right. Liar picks up on surf music sensibilities as lead parts meld with chords and an abrupt vocal energy. It’s quick but has great instrumentation with additional drone guitar sounds, clean chords under a quick-fire guitar solo and extra reverb on fast parts before the track ends on a choked guitar note.
By comparison, No Dreams, whilst benefitting from doubling rhythm guitar tracks and backing vocals, is centred on an embellished riff, executed with a light touch and fleshed out as the song structures unfold. Riffs and rhythm tracks build upon layers with harmonised instruments and backing vocals adding depth. A delay effected, solo of rising octaves ends the song, which is a great example of tone selection, pacing and mixing.
To round out the album, the anecdotal Melissa Blue melds styles of folk rock and punk odes to abandonment, it is a lyrically poetic song with a raw, loose vibe as dirty and partially clean guitar sounds interact tactfully. Tek’s understated vocals work perfectly, as does the succinct guitar solo against lighter, freer instrumentation that has an almost 60’s jamming approach which isn’t really present elsewhere, adding a unique taste.
The cool album cover artwork with vintage Bugatti racing cars crashing into one another, indicate this isn’t weekend afternoon, breezy listening fare. In parts, maybe, but overall, it’s got a lot of energy. There won’t be a tour sadly but this album is testament to the ingenuity of using technology and file sharing to complete what would otherwise potentially have been stalled. Two to One is an excellent collaborative album from two pioneering musical artists whose understanding and appreciation of each other’s work is evident. The album is definitely worth tracking down, even if you’re not a huge fan of The Stooges or Radio Birdman.
1. Jet Pack Nightmare
3. Take a Look Around
4. Good as Gone
6. Climate Change
7. Birthday Party
8. Small Change
10. No Dreams
11. Melissa Blue