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Right away I like this album. I like it because it’s Mott the Hoople, a band that could probably please me just by farting with the slightest degree of sincerity: After years of performing for an audience that almost seemed limited to those who already got their albums free, the situation is at last in the hands of the cash & carry crowd. Which is exactly where it should be. For the first time I don’t have to try and sell you on Mott the Hoople, and parties aren’t very much fun until somebody else shows up. But this is also the first Mott album that they couldn’t make basically on their own time. It’s the first time that they’ve had to wrestle with the pressure of a demand for their product: recording deadlines, release dates that mechanically mesh with tour dates, having everybody from the janitor to the label president wondering where that next album is. Thinking three steps ahead of yourself is hard, a task made no easier when you’re also trying to work somebody new (guitarist Ariel Bender) into the present. Mott’s summation: crazed drive, riding the crests of energy waves. This might begin to explain why I get the feeling that The Hoople is the album where Mott’s stylization catches up with them. Nearly every song on it makes reference, if not to a specific song, then to a specific time period in the band’s multi-faced past. The crescendo effect on “Through the Looking Glass” is kissing-cousin close to “Hymn for the Dudes”; the piano/organ dominance of “Alice” seems to hark back to more Dylanesque days (and is a lyrical bedmate of Ian Hunter’s previous New York songs. “Angel of Eighth Avenue” and “Whizz Kid”); at first glance, “Trudi’s Song” seems like the ballad you’ll find once on every Mott album. But this line of criticism holds water only for those who’ve been part of the battle long enough to be able to see the strategy. Which really only means that The Hoople is a summation of the last five years, one final glance back down the runway in recognition of the fact that they’ve taken past directions about as far as they could go. To the latecomers (i.e., the majority of the people who’ll buy this record) it’ll just seem like good music.
Even when you’ve accepted that, though, there are still songs that leap from the surroundings and take you by the throat. “Marionette” is yet another “stardom is pain” expostulation, but is certainly the best -- and hopefully the last -- word on the subject. You’ll be tempted to dub it “theatrical,” but it’s theatre like a horse stampede. It romps through its paces with both fists clenched -- “Don’t gamble with my life/Or you won’t live to do it twice” -- pushed till it dissolves, with some assistance from sax impresario Andrew Mackay (of the ever-popular and dangerous Roxy Music). But “Crash Street Kids” churns up the most maniacal electrothrust on the entire album, with Ariel Bender and drummer Buffin absolutely searing an intro that is nearly everything this or any other rock & roll band should be. I’m hoping it’s a harbinger of things to come. Though the preoccupation of The Hoople is with themselves, in the midst of the mirror lies a pretty clear picture of English Rock, circa 1974. “Golden Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll” might sound like any other standard reenactment of past sweat ‘n’ glory, were it not for the band’s consistent personality imprint and a production that just gets better and better at giving an illusion of depth. “Pearl ‘n’ Roy” is infectious pub-stomp filtered through “See My Baby Jive” (with another tip o’ the hat to Mr. Mackay), but the definitive Anglopop knockout is “Roll Away the Stone.” Though it’s been slightly altered from its English hit version (Bender dubbed another guitar figure over Mick Ralphs’ original track, and for reasons known only to Ian Hunter the same was done with the girl’s voice in the bridge), but the effect is the same: You can dance to it, sing to it, or play imaginary SRO concerts to it. Knock yourself out; they do. The addition of Ariel Bender was an A-plus move, though undoubtedly more so than staunch Mick Ralphs fans will be able to admit at first. He’s undeniably an awkward guitarist, but his redemption lies in the fact that he’s not just playing a riff but straining for an idea. He may start out on wobbly legs, but he usually overtakes the idea just in time to make it work. He’ll probably come off even better given raunchier surroundings; his guitar has that crazed drive that should be riding the crest of wave after energy wave. Even though there’s very little here that’s breathtakingly new, there’s even less that isn’t engaging enough to make that irrelevant. Once they’ve fully come to grips with their situation (as opposed to singing about coming to grips with it) -- and with the regenerative shot that Ariel Bender’s already beginning to provide -- you can bet that Mott the Hoople will give more heads the old 360-degree turnaround than even they’ve dreamed of. With the Hoople. They’ll have to settle for just being better than practically everybody else.