The third and finalStooges album before Iggy Pop went solo, Raw Power is both a swan song and an example of taking a particular form as far as it could go. Following the howling anarchy of the previous album's L.A. Blues, there was nowhere left to go besides louder. And louder, as the name implies, is basically what Raw Power is all about.
We should begin by talking about the album's mix. After an error by Pop squashed all the original recordings into just three tracks, the band, the vocals, and the lead guitar, David Bowie was called in to help. The resulting mix was widely regarded as unsatisfactory, but the best that could be accomplished with the source material. In 1997, however, Iggy Pop remixed the whole album himself for the CD reissue. This is the version I have been listening to for many years, and when I say “listening to” I generally mean “not listening to.” In an effort to capture the band’s energy, Pop purposely cranked all the levels up into the red, and the result is a painfully loud, audibly distorted, brittle mix reminiscent of broken glass. I have always found it difficult to listen to, and as a result, I have not given Raw Power the same attention I have to Pop's other albums.
In preparation for this review, I went back and listened to the original Bowie mix, and I have to admit I find it much better. It’s more subdued, some of the noisier vocal and guitar parts, the ones that sound sloppy or like mistakes, have been edited out, and a few effects have been placed on the lead guitar that makes it sound more professional, as well as more interesting. It’s not an amazing mix, but it’s at least listenable.
Pop revels in the aggression of rock and roll, and his mix reflects that. You can tell he wants to be thought of as the baddest, most aggressive frontman in the industry, and he is not without credentials. Search and Destroy and Your Pretty Face Is Going to Hell are searing workouts that make even most punk and metal - genres that hadn't really been invented yet - seem tame in comparison. But in my opinion, Iggy is at his best when he settles into a sleazy groove like on Gimme Danger and I need Somebody. These tracks are simply more interesting than the straightforward rockers.
The songwriting overall is pretty good, and Pop is assisted by lead guitarist James Williamson. I would argue that the writing on previous albums is slightly superior, but there are certainly plenty of solid compositions here, a facet of the band that tends to be overlooked due to the sheer volume and energy of the performances. Little touches like the celeste on Penetration show just how creative the band was feeling at the time.
The lone exception to this is found on the final track, Death Wish, which rather lazily rocks back and forth between two chords while drones on over the top. It feels like an uninspired closer to an album that otherwise bursts with vitality.
There's no denying that Raw Power is a good album, and was extremely influential on punk and other musical forms, but ultimately the effect is somewhat spoiled by Pop's failure to understand that you can't make music rock harder by simply pushing volume levels up to the breaking point.