What is it about Don Fagenson, better known as Don Was of Was (Not Was), that's made him one of the most sought-after producers in the recording industry? His demonstrated flair for reviving fading careers, for one thing. He first got on a roll by producing two of last year's biggest (and unlikeliest) hits: Bonnie Raitt's multiple Grammy Award-winning album "Nick of Time" and part of the B-52s' bestselling "Cosmic Thing," which includes the Was-fashioned Top Five hit "Love Shack."
As a result, Was isn't just busier than ever. He's busier than he ever dreamed of being. Having recently finished a new Bob Dylan album, "Under the Red Sky," due out next month, he's currently compiling new tracks for an upcoming Elton John anthology and adding final touches to the next Bob Seger album. Future projects include collaborations with Paula Abdul -- for whom Dylan, believe it or not, reportedly wrote a song -- Leonard Cohen, Michael McDonald, the Temptations, Dion, David Crosby and the all-but-forgotten Knack.
Was's handiwork is also evident on two new albums already released -- "Are You Okay?" the fourth album by Was (Not Was), and "Brick by Brick," the latest from perennial upstart Iggy Pop. And if both records fail to make much of an impact on the charts, it won't be because Was didn't try to keep things simple and radio-friendly.
Was (Not Was): 'Are You Okay?' Of course, simple is a highly relative term when it's applied to anything Was (Not Was) records. As usual, "Are You Okay?" (Chrysalis) has more than its share of surreal moments to go along with its densely layered funk and dance cuts. Thanks for that go to Was's partner, David (Was) Weiss, who often contributes stream-of-semiconsciousness lyrics to the mix, and a typically curious and eclectic roster of guest performers, including Cohen, Pop, Syd Straw, the Roches and Jeff Lorber.
Cohen, for example, plays a deadpan narrator on "Elvis' Rolls Royce," a hallucinatory account of driving Elvis's limo from London to Graceland, the Atlantic Ocean and hordes of fans notwithstanding. A similarly droll cameo comes Weiss's way on "I Feel Better Than James Brown," which is only fitting since he may be the one person alive who understands the full relevance (or irrelevance) of his lyrics. Suffice it to say that the protagonist here fights off the CIA and ultimately joins Fidel Castro in opening a chain of Kentucky Fried Chicken shops. "I feel good," Weiss coolly concludes, borrowing a line from the Godfather of Soul. "I feel better than James Brown."
Still, for all its non sequiturs and idiosyncrasies, both verbal and electronic, "Are You Okay?" is more accessible than the band's previous albums. The group's remake of the Temptations' hit "Papa Was a Rollin' Stone," clever and provocative though it may be, is nonetheless an obvious attempt to win airplay. A faithful arrangement featuring the group's principal vocalists -- Sweet Pea Atkinson, Sir Harry Bowens and Donald Ray Mitchell -- gets a topical twist once rapper G Love E enters the picture and replaces the original version's comparatively plaintive tone with an abandoned son's bitterness and anger: "Stealin' beggin' hustlin' schemin'/ You could'a got a job/ but did you know the meaning of work/ I'm talking about an honest day's pay/ But you was too lazy to be that way."
Although other familiar social issues are addressed by the band, powerfully so in the case of the battered wives tale "Maria Novarro," it's the music -- the numerous homages to soul and funk pioneers and the mostly tried and true dance grooves -- that makes "Are You Okay?" sound much more conventional than usual.
Iggy Pop: 'Brick by Brick' For different reasons, the same can be said for Pop's "Brick by Brick" (Virgin), though one suspects he wouldn't look kindly on the comment. Indeed, on "Main Street Eyes" he rails against popular tastes and "phony rock-and-roll," declaring, "You and I are not huge mainstream stars, but unlike them we're really what we are." The topic resurfaces on "I Won't Crap Out" when Pop shouts, "I despise the trendies, I know they're lying," and yet again on "Butt Town," which offers this commentary on the recording industry: "The producer is wily, and owns what he sells/ the talent is eager to go straight to hell."
Some old fans of the Stooges may well believe Pop is writing his own epitaph with that statement. Here he is, after all, collaborating with the hottest producer in the business, along with mainstream guests John Hiatt, the B-52s' Kate Pierson, Guns N'Roses guitarist Slash and John Cougar Mellencamp's drummer, Kenny Aronoff. But Pop gets a chance to speak his mind just the same, and if Was can take pride in one thing, it's that he's forced Pop to funnel his anger into some interesting songs this time around, not just mindless rants.