Classic Rock Review

The home of old record and bootleg reviews…

Genesis Trespass (1970)


Genesis abandoned all that sunshine-pop stuff and went all King Crimson on us, which I’m sure disappointed about two people. Even though this is still pretty early in their career, it sounds exactly like a Genesis album. That is to say, there’s no major stylistic difference between this and Selling England By the Pound. Yup, this is an album full of wimpy sounding songs, and lyrics that indicate that they read a lot of geeky fantasy novels. …Of course, that’s one of the main reasons I like Genesis. I am a pretty wimpy reader of fantasy novels myself.

Also, Genesis has a pretty good handle on melodies and atmospheres, and, generally speaking, good melodies and atmospheres are why I like listening to music. (That’s one of the reasons I never cared for Rush or Styx even though I do sympathize with their incurable geekiness.)

Really, that’s all there is to Genesis’ appeal, because God knows they weren’t very good instrumentalists. …That is to say, they were pretty good, but they really had nothin’ on many of the other huge bands of the day. (I don’t think that is news to anyone.) They didn’t have any real virtuosos in the group. Their guitarists and keyboardist usually just stuck to playing arpeggios.

Peter Gabriel played his flute about as well as you’d expect to hear at a high school recital. Phil Collins wasn’t even in this incarnation of the band, and thus the drumming on Trespass is merely average. What’s more, they sometimes even come off as amateurish in this release. They get some slack there, though, since they were still extremely young.

Luckily Genesis isn’t about their instrumentalists and they never pretended to be; they were about songs. And they come up with some pleasant ones in Trespass. Right away, “Looking For Someone” is a highly engaging, mystical sort of song with interesting lyrics, thick atmosphere, and a rather ear-catching melody. It’s nothing that really blows away my toupee; I consider it more to be a song that I just enjoy listening to while relaxing in a big chair. But even for such a song, they do a really respectable job developing it through a series of dramatic crescendos!

If I’m going to listen to a seven-minute song, it’s great that it has a lot of crescendos in it, because it actually gives me the feeling that it’s going somewhere! Sometimes it gets boring, but I listen to it knowing that it won’t be boring for long.

On the other hand, “White Mountain,” does seem to get stuck in a few ruts. The slower, mystical parts seem to go on for too long, and its crescendos aren’t very numerous and not very well developed. However, I do like some of the textures they pull out there, which is the main reason I gave it a respectable ‘B’ rating in the track reviews… So, this is still a good song to listen to while lazing around in my big chair! “Vision of Angels” is a near-brilliant song that does develop rather well… That beautiful piano passage that opens it is incredibly ear-catching, and I’m almost moved profoundly whenever they get to that chorus. (It seems to take a lot to move me nowadays, so “almost moving me” is a pretty big deal.) The instrumental interlude is intricate and keeps the overall song moving at a solid pace.

“Stagnation” is very slow moving, but it’s the sort of thing that I can lose myself into, which is quite a rarity for me. It’s a sweet, pastoral epic is another sweet thing to listen to while I’m in that relaxed position. (And it’s not like it’s 100 percent “stagnant,” either… it gets pretty tense at times.) “Dusk” never gets tense at all, but it’s excused because it’s only four minutes long, and it’s a nice precursor to the song that follows, “The Knife.”

That is without a doubt the highlight of Trespass due to the fact that it’s nine minutes long and pretty consistently tense throughout. It might be “slow” at times, but it always gives me the impression that something big is happening. Again, that’s not something I experience too often…

Somehow I feel a bit strange awarding this album such a high score even though I’d imagine that 95 percent of the human race wouldn’t feel the same about it. Although I guess I’m at a point in my life where I’m not surprised if 95 percent of the human race is profoundly different than me! Despite my pretty glowing recommendation of Trespass, this is not a great place to start with Genesis. If you already own the similar though superior albums Foxtrot, Nursery Cryme, Selling England By the Pound and you’re itching for more, then get Trespass immediately. And try not to feel bad about being an egghead. You should never feel bad for being an egghead. We’re the ones that make the world go round. According to me.

March 3, 2013 Posted by | Genesis Trespass | | Leave a comment

Led Zeppelin Houses Of The Holy (1973)


18afa7ad743a2b03e57e301a50a67f318de1192eThis is one hell of an odd record. It sounds like Led Zeppelin were attempting to take themselves into a more prog-rock direction, but they weren’t too sure how to go about it. The album opener “The Song Remains the Same” starts out sounding like it’ll be another butt-whomping heavy metal classic, but instead it sort of wanders around with a bunch of Who-style power chords without ever going anywhere. It’s fun to listen to for sure with the possible exception of that slowly paced drunken bit where Robert Plant starts to sing. I wish that they would have brought some sort of distinct atmosphere or emotion in the mix, but they didn’t. It’s just an ordinary, barely above average guitar song in the end.

Although “The Song Remains the Same” isn’t the album’s best example of prog-rock. For that, you needn’t look further than “No Quarter,” which to my surprise does contain its own special atmosphere and texture. It begins quietly and creepy with rubbery keyboards, which sound to me like it’s illustrating some sort of swamp. (I hope I’m not the only person who thinks of a swamp… Sometimes I feel like I’m in a psychiatrist’s office describing inkblots when I talk about music…) The guitars and drums slowly pick up, and they’re awesome of course. Eventually Plant starts to sing, and he does it with some real subdued passion. Overall, that’s a brilliant song, and single-handedly made their prog-flirtations worthwhile.

There were also weird attempts at other sorts of music, most notably funk and reggae. The reggae “D’yer Mak’r” is one of my favorite bits here thanks to its memorable melody and fun instrumentation. The only main drawback (and not really a big deal to me) are the lyrics, which are pretty stupid even for Led Zeppelin. The funk outing “Crunge” is so weird that makes me think of an early Talking Heads jam session than actual Isley Brothers style funk. Perhaps that means its ahead of its time or maybe it’s just awkward because they didn’t know how to go about it. It’s interesting, though. The detached groove takes a little getting used to, and Robert Plant clearly had no idea how to sing to it. He’s just sort of squawking in a default bluesish sort of way.

When it comes to choosing my favorite moments of Houses of the Holy, I have to stick with the more traditional stuff. (I know, that’s hard to believe since I’ve always been claiming to not care for their classic style! Am I a Led Zeppelin fan, after all?) “Dancing Days” is a really butt-whomping mid-tempo hard blues with a catchy riff and a memorable vocal melody. I even like Plant’s vocal performance there, who is keeping himself (for once) from belting out extraneous “uh-huhs” and “baybuhs.” It even seems a bit alien to me, because some blessed soul is playing a strange off-key keyboard in the background.

Led Zeppelin nearly bested “Stairway to Heaven” with another ballad “The Rain Song,” which is one of the most beautiful things I laid my ears on. They brought out a Mellotron for that, and … wow, not even Genesis made that instrument sound so nice! Although to be fair Genesis and The Moody Blues made that instrument one tiny part of their overall landscape, and Led Zeppelin created a texture no more complicated than an acoustic guitar and a Mellotron. But what a pretty song!

I usually applaud a band that wants to experiment, and Led Zeppelin found a quite few interesting things in their attempt. I liked their funny reggae tune, and I really liked their full-on prog outing “No Quarter.” But some of the others come off as rather clunky and unexciting, which makes me wonder if they were just better off just sticking to heavy metal and ballads. Despite what I might have been insinuating in previous reviews, heavy metal and ballads aren’t a bad thing!

March 3, 2013 Posted by | Led Zeppelin Houses Of The Holy | | Leave a comment

Gram Parsons: The International Submarine Band – Safe At Home (1968)


This was Gram Parsons’ debut album, the eternally underrated Safe At Home. Prior to this he had recorded solo demos, music with an early folk band the Shilohs and a few singles with the International Submarine Band – all worthwhile stuff. Parsons formed this group after he had dropped out of Harvard and moved to New York City.

While he was no stranger to the recording studio, critics and music fans unfairly label Safe At Home as a tentative early album that showed signs of greatness. While it was nowhere near as influential as Gilded Palace of Sin, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, or Parsons’ two solo discs, time has shown Safe At Home to be much more than an early throw away.

The remaining members consisted of rhythm guitarist Bob Buchanan, bass player Ian Dunlop and drummer Jon Corneal. The album is disappointingly short at 9 songs but all the performances are memorable and Gram’s talent as a bandleader is clearly on display.

Even so early on in his career Parsons’ vocal and songwriting abilities were obvious and on the money. The rest of the group is tight and engaging, reminding me of a garage band playing country music – reckless playing and soulful harmonies.

There are four originals: an early version of Do You Know How It Feels To Be Lonesome which is sparse but very effective, Luxury Liner, Strong Boy, and Blue Eyes. The latter three tracks are country rock classics, kind of like early benchmarks for the genre. Luxury Liner charges hard like a freight train and is probably the most popular track off the original lp. Without a doubt the album’s most rock oriented number, this track is essential listening. Just as good is Blue Eyes and Strong Boy which are closer to pure country and show off great Parsons vocal performances. Strong Boy is one of the true country rock classics, an absolute must hear.

The remaining tracks are wisely chosen covers, all great renditions too. Satisfied Mind is notable for its powerful drum work, Folsom Prison Blues has great stinging guitar leads and I Must Be Somebody Else You’ve Known sports a gorgeous, catchy chorus that’s worth the price of admission.

The original lp was released off Lee Hazlewood’s LHI Records in 1968. At the time it was praised widely by the likes of Glen Campbell and Don Everly though sales were pretty poor. There is really much more to this story that I’m leaving out but my main objective was to comment on the strength of the songs and general quality of performance.

Parsons left the group before the lp’s release and remained inactive for a few months before joining the Byrds. Many of you know this record, so in a sense it’s not really a lost album like The Wheel (Bernie Schwartz) or Morning. But taken as a whole, Safe At Home is a fresh, groundbreaking record, that at least in my mind is a classic. The best cd version is on Sundazed, orignal artwork and all.

March 3, 2013 Posted by | Gram Parsons The International Submarine Band | | Leave a comment

Steve Hackett Beyond The Shrouded Horizon (2011)


With a career spanning some 40 years, Steve Hackett has continued to blaze a trail across the prog firmament of which most other musicians can only dream. Once the introverted, bearded and bespectacled guitarist with Genesis, since his departure from the band in 1977, he has carved a solo career, which includes more than 20 albums and collaborations with other musicians including his flautist brother John.

After a relatively quiet period, he came roaring back last year with the immaculate Out Of The Tunnel’s Mouth which was accompanied by some stunning live performances including a slightly abbreviated appearance at the High Voltage Festival in London. So is Beyond The Shrouded Horizon as good as its predecessor? The answer fortunately is a resounding “yes.” In recent times, his songs have been punctuated by certain episodes in his personal life which often made for lyrically interesting material. But now, he appears to put that particular past behind him having recently married Jo, who has co-written many of the songs and really seems to have brought a spring and a fresh new energy into the body of work here.

Retaining the Electric Band line-up (Messrs Nick Beggs, Roger King, Gary O’Toole, Rob Townsend and Mlle Amanda Leamon), who played so brilliantly with him on the recent tours, the album is a magical mystery tour to some very special places dear to Hackett’s heart. However, what you will notice throughout this album is the immaculate, almost totally effortless way in which Hackett can coax some magic out of his beloved Gibson Les Paul, using every effect in the book, to produce a collection of diverse and highly listenable pieces. Packed full of different moods and textures, this is one of the stand-out prog albums of the year, crafted by one of the greatest exponents of the genre. This album takes the Hackett canon of work to a completely new level. It’s not to be missed.

Track by Track Review

Loch Lomond
The swelling opening chords of “Loch Lomond” leading into a huge slab of melody punctuated by the characteristic wah-wah guitar sound opening into a melodic acoustic section topped by lush harmonies with Amanda Leamon clearly audible and also some bagpipes – perhaps another first in prog.

The Phoenix Flown
“The Phoenix Flown” is an all too brief guitar driven chunk of prog with a great rhythm in which Hackett goes off on a flight of fancy with some gorgeous flowing melody lines that again demonstrate a man on top of his game.

This is a 44 second acoustic piece which serves as a bridge to the next number.

Til These Eyes
“Til These Eyes” is a rolling river of a song, acoustically led with close harmonies and a lilting melody, underscored by Richard Stuart on cello, Dick Driver on double bass and Christine Townsend on violin and viola.

Prairie Angel
This was a work in progress when Hackett was last on tour. Not anymore. It is now a full blown anthem with a creamy guitar melody that develops into a mighty bluesy workout with lots of hard and heavy riffing.

A Place Called Freedom
If there was to be a single release from BTSH, then it would be the very attractive “A Place Called Freedom” which goes from acoustic, jingling guitars with a delightfully light vocal melody line into that rich creamy guitar and soaring keyboards. But it is that great guitar sound which keeps coming back and hitting you head-on. This is absolutely delicious!

Between the Sunset and the Coconut Palms
This is a gentle acoustic guitar and vocal harmony which brings to mind of Hackett’s “Serpentine Song” and which takes you off on a magic carpet to somewhere warm and wonderful – all woven into its melody lifted even higher with a lovely lilting symphonic passage.

Waking to Life
“Waking to Life” has Amanda Leamon singing above sitar and a swelling melody line before that extraordinary guitar and sustain comes back to send your senses reeling yet again.

Two Faces of Cairo
This is another great musical stopping point in the musical travelogue with some full on drumming from Gary O’Toole and that wonderful Arabian guitar sound which Hackett has constantly captured so well in recent musical excursions. It then morphs into another one of those searing guitar interludes where he can sustain notes almost at will.

Looking for Fantasy
Here is a wistful little song about a lady of a certain age reflecting on her past life recounting some of the key events of the 60s and 70s while dating a guy half her age who “resembles a young Jimmy Page.” Again a beautiful acoustic guitar underscores and heightens the nostalgia of this piece – a recurring theme in Hackett’s work over the decades.

Summer’s Breath
“Summer’s Breath,” another acoustic interlude, makes an all too brief appearance before taking us to the next piece.

One of the stand-out tracks, “Catwalk” comes swaggering in a bluesy full-on, “look at me” kind of way that harnesses both Chris Squire and Simon Phillips in the rhythm section. It sounds like Still Waters with attitude with Steve just getting out there and strutting his stuff in the most spectacular style.

Turn This Island Earth
This incredible journey ends with the haunting “Turn This Island Earth,” a shimmering piece of musical beauty which embraces the cosmos, among the planets, where again, Hackett lets rip with a little bit of jiggerypokery while on this flight of fancy.

March 3, 2013 Posted by | Steve Hackett Beyond The Shrouded Horizon | , | Leave a comment

The Faces Ooh La La (1973)

zap_faces1From Rolling Stone

Hey, not all that bad if you consider that most consumers will fork over for a Faces album with rather low preliminary expectations: Two or at most three tracks will usually soak up the energy and style of the tunes that grace the records of Rodney himself, the sandy catarrh, a jaunty and rocking swing, the insouciant lip that he lays on his lovers and his listeners.

Everybody knows that the other seven cuts are not gonna amount to much — even if they give Rod a third or a quarter compositional credit just to fatten up the sheep, not enough is gonna be happening with master Ronnie Lane’s tenuous tonsilisms. At least that’s the way it’s gone before.

Ooh La La however is more than an excuse to keep three cute journeyman popsters off the dole and behind Rodney and guitarist Ron (“Everything Sounds the Same”) Wood. Only three of the ten tracks are candidates for the poop chute and the rest alternately rock real hard or are fine vehicles for Rod’s mellower and subtler vocal talents. What a surprise. And more, what a relief …

“Silicone Grown” has that nice and fiery tone Woodsy gets out of his axe, a tasty rockish flavor and words that I can’t quite make out the content of, but judging from the title you’d think that they’d have something to do with tits, wouldn’t you? “Cindy Incidentally” comes next and has that old lurching and slightly crapulated feeling that Rod does so well by, something like “Mama You Been on My Mind.” Stewart and Lane collaborated on “Flags And Banners”; Lane sings and it doesn’t come off too hot.

A beautifully soulful Stewart vocal rehabilitates “My Fault” from probable torpor if anyone else had done it. “Borstal Boys” is as good a hard-rock number as Rod as ever dealt with; Borstal — reform school in Britain — is no picnic and the tune reflects the loathing that folks have for it, as well as the tough glamour that the word projects.

The second side starts with an interesting, if not gland-opening, instrumental by Jones – McLagen – Wood – Lane, then gets into a pair of handsome and gentle songs on which Stewart excels, the smoky “If I’m on the Late Side” and especially Ronnie Lane’s “Just Another Honky,” a self-conscious musicians’ lament which Rod delivers as well as any song on his own albums. It’s a smart tune that cancels out the doldrums of “Glad And Sorry” and the title tune, which shamefully falls on its Face; any song about the old-time boulevardier spirit oughtta move, but this sounds like thumb-sucking to me.

In any case seven out of ten is better than average for this bunch, good enough to rate as a solid pop record, although I might consider “Borstal Boys” alone worth the price. It’s strong.

March 3, 2013 Posted by | The Faces Ooh La La | | Leave a comment

The Rolling Stones A Bigger Bang (2005)


Eight years separate 2005’s A Bigger Bang, the Rolling Stones’ 24th album of original material, from its 1997 predecessor, Bridges to Babylon, the longest stretch of time between Stones albums in history, but unlike the three-year gap between 1986’s Dirty Work and 1989’s Steel Wheels, the band never really went away. They toured steadily, not just behind Bridges but behind the career-spanning 2002 compilation Forty Licks, and the steady activity paid off nicely, as the 2004 concert souvenir album Live Licks proved.

The tight, sleek, muscular band showcased there was a surprise — they played with a strength and swagger they hadn’t had in years — but a bigger surprise is that A Bigger Bang finds that reinvigorated band carrying its latter-day renaissance into the studio, turning in a sinewy, confident, satisfying album that’s the band’s best in years. Of course, every Stones album since their highly touted, self-conscious 1989 comeback, Steel Wheels, has been designed to get this kind of positive press, to get reviewers to haul out the cliché that this is their “best record since Exile on Main St.” (Mick Jagger is so conscious of this, he deliberately compared Bigger Bang to Exile in all pre-release publicity and press, even if the scope and feel of Bang is very different from that 1972 classic), so it’s hard not to take any praise with a grain of salt, but there is a big difference between this album and 1994’s Voodoo Lounge.

That album was deliberately classicist, touching on all of the signatures of classic mid-period, late-’60s/early-’70s Stones — reviving the folk, country, and straight blues that balanced their trademark rockers — and while it was often successful, it very much sounded like the Stones trying to be the Stones. What distinguishes A Bigger Bang is that it captures the Stones simply being the Stones, playing without guest stars, not trying to have a hit, not trying to adopt the production style of the day, not doing anything but lying back and playing.

Far from sounding like a lazy affair, the album rocks really hard, tearing out of the gate with “Rough Justice,” the toughest, sleaziest, and flat-out best song Jagger and Richards have come up with in years. It’s not a red herring, either — “She Saw Me Coming,” “Look What the Cat Dragged In,” and the terrific “Oh No Not You Again,” which finds Mick spitting out lyrics with venom and zeal, are equally as hard and exciting, but the album isn’t simply a collection of rockers. The band delves into straight blues with “Back of My Hand,” turns toward pop with “Let Me Down Slow,” rides a disco groove reminiscent of “Emotional Rescue” on “Rain Fall Down,” and has a number of ballads, highlighted by “Streets of Love” and Keith’s late-night barroom anthem “This Place Is Empty,” that benefit greatly from the stripped-down, uncluttered production by Don Was and the Glimmer Twins.

Throughout the album, the interplay of the band is at the forefront, which is one of the reasons the record is so consistent: even the songs that drift toward the generic are redeemed by the sound of the greatest rock & roll band ever playing at a latter-day peak. And, make no mistake about it, the Stones sound better as a band than they have in years: there’s an ease and assurance to their performances that are a joy to hear, whether they’re settling into a soulful groove or rocking harder than any group of 60-year-olds should.

But A Bigger Bang doesn’t succeed simply because the Stones are great musicians, it also works because this is a strong set of Jagger-Richards originals — naturally, the songs don’t rival their standards from the ’60s and ’70s, but the best songs here more than hold their own with the best of their post-Exile work, and there are more good songs here than on any Stones album since Some Girls.

This may not be a startling comeback along the lines of Bob Dylan’s Love and Theft, but that’s fine, because over the last three decades the Stones haven’t been about surprises: they’ve been about reliability. The problem is, they haven’t always lived up to their promises, or when they did deliver the goods, it was sporadic and unpredictable. And that’s what’s unexpected about A Bigger Bang: they finally hold up their end of the bargain, delivering a strong, engaging, cohesive Rolling Stones album that finds everybody in prime form. Keith is loose and limber, Charlie is tight and controlled, Ronnie lays down some thrilling, greasy slide guitar, and Mick is having a grand time, making dirty jokes, baiting neo-cons, and sounding more committed to the Stones than he has in years.

Best of all, this is a record where the band acknowledges its age and doesn’t make a big deal about it: they’re not in denial, trying to act like a younger band, they’ve simply accepted what they do best and go about doing it as if it’s no big deal. But that’s what makes A Bigger Bang a big deal: it’s the Stones back in fighting form for the first time in years, and they have both the strength and the stamina to make the excellent latter-day effort everybody’s been waiting for all these years.

March 3, 2013 Posted by | The Rolling Stones A Bigger Bang | | Leave a comment

The Rolling Stones Steel Wheels (1989)


The Renaissance for The Stones? Possibly. Possibly not. It had to be the Renaissance: after all the hassle-dazzle Mick had finally settled his troubles with Keith, and the recording of this album was a desperate affair: they had to show the world that the name of The Rolling Stones still mattered. And in doing this, they managed to put out an album which, although far from perfect, was still a serious improvement over their last two. Unfortunately, in retrospect the album had suffered a lot exactly due to all the extra celebrity-related baggage appended to it: hyped up to heaven upon release (“The Stones are back! The Stones are the Phoenix of the modern world!”), it has since become almost a cliche to bash the record for “trying to sound way too much like they’re the Rolling Stones”. Nowadays, Steel Wheels don’t get too much respect, and it’s a shame, because this is at least a serious effort, with the guys actually having taken some time to work on the material and present it from its best side.

Of course, the defects are still obvious – after all, the legacy of the band’s previous Eighties’ output was still fresh in everybody’s minds. As usual, Jagger barks his way through on most tracks, some of which belong in that wretched Dirty Work bag. ‘Hold On To Your Hat’, for example, is basically ‘Hold Back no. 2’ – some fans claim the number to be a highlight, but all I hear is a speedy repetitive punkish rhythm, speedy repetitive offensive lyrics, and a couple of dazzling solos which, on second glance, turn out to be pretty repetitive as well. The “rip it up” attitude simply does not work on here; the song’s only distinctive feature is that it’s the most underarranged track on the album (Mick and Keith on guitars, Ron on bass, Charlie on the kit, and not even a Bill Wyman in the studio).

Another flaw is that, when it comes to the fast numbers, the arrangements are all very similar – the rockers ‘Sad Sad Sad’, ‘Mixed Emotions’ and ‘Rock And A Hard Place’ all sound pretty much the same, although the latter is actually the best song on the entire record. A minor hit and perhaps the closest they got to a ‘classic’ on here, it’s perhaps Jagger’s best statement in support of the third world (and certainly more hard-hitting and sincere-looking than something like ‘Undercover Of The Night’); but the contrast of barking guitar/barking vocal is nothing new, and both ‘Sad Sad Sad’ and ‘Mixed Emotions’, potentially solid rockers, are reduced to lazy formula. I do admit, though, that ‘Sad Sad Sad’ is moderately catchy, whereas ‘Mixed Emotions’, with its ‘let’s bury the hatchet’ lines, did get the Glimmer Twins a lot of consolative press.

However, I’m also sorry to say that, but Keith has completely lost what few abilities he had as a solo player: the riffing work is superb, as usual, but watch out for those solos! They’re among the ugliest, most dissonant, least inspired solos you’ll ever meet on a Stones album. Whoever suggested Keith should embellish the record with his witty lead work did the man a disservice for sure; there ain’t no ‘Sympathy For The Devil On Here’. Finally, once again there are too many electronic drums, as on all the 80’s records (except for Tattoo You, of course); Charlie is more prominent than on Dirty Work, but it would still take them five more years to restore the Good Guy to his usual throne.

Plenty of defects, as you see – but who could blame them? They were coming off the worst decade in both their personal relationships and rock music. Still, not all is bad. Jagger has contributed two ballads, and that alone is news – there were no soft songs on Undercover, and the only soft (and bad) song on Dirty Work was Keith’s. Of course, ‘Blinded By Love’ has dorky ‘educational’ lyrics (with Mick’s brother Chris serving as ‘literary editor’) and a rather simple, conformist sappy pop melody, but the keyboards-based ‘Almost Hear You Sigh’ is charming, with one of those soft, engaging refrains that only Mick’s voice can bring to life.

Keith – first time ever – takes lead vocals two times, and both times it’s a score: the ballad ‘Slipping Away’ is among his best (a very rare exception: my humble opinion is that besides this one and ‘You Got The Silver’, and, maybe, ‘The Worst’, all of his ballads are completely devoid of anything remotely approaching a memorable melody), while the rocker ‘Can’t Be Seen’ qualifies as well.

All aboard! Genre experimentation! The psychedelic (sic!) ‘Continental Drift’, recorded together with the Master Musicians of Jajouka, is so-so (definitely not as abysmal as some people say – come now, people, just ’cause it’s Eastern-based and psychedelic doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to write songs like that in 1989), but the disco effort ‘Terrifying’ is very, very, very convincing, with Jagger turning it into a ‘mysterious’ song in the vein of ‘Fingerprint File’. The little jam at the end is a touch of genius: otherwise, the song would swiftly flow by as a piece of filler, but the guitar/brass/drum interplay turns it into an unforgettable “cheesy romantic” near-masterpiece.

So I guess it’s fifty-fifty for this album, or maybe even something like sixty-forty; that’s why a rating of 6 sums it up nicely. Indeed, I’ve considered pumping it up, but then it would’ve been equal to Goats’ Head Soup, and that ain’t really so. Cut the hype, cut the anti-hype, and you’re left with a moderately solid effort, and a good start for their Big Return. I do pity those poor souls for whom this album was an introduction to the Rolling Stones, though. It should have come up with a sticker saying something like, ‘From the men who brought you the far superior Let It Bleed twenty years ago!’.

March 3, 2013 Posted by | The Rolling Stones Steel Wheels | | Leave a comment

The Rolling Stones Some Girls (1978)


The Rolling Stones were public enemy no.1 when punk rock arrived in 1976 and attempted to lay waste to the rock decadence evidenced on post-Exile On Main Street albums Goat’s Head Soup and It’s Only Rock N’ Roll, but the Stones weren’t beaten yet and in 1978 they released Some Girls and the result was ten short sharp songs incorporating rock, disco, soul and country.

Where else do you start your response to punk rock but with a disco song? The disco beat, the funky bassline, the four-to-the-floor drumbeat, the harmonica riff and Mick’s weary, horny voice sings “I’ve been holding out so long, I’ve been sleeping all alone, Lord, I miss you”. The gorgeous vocal as Mick takes an audio cold shower, trilling “oooh oooh oooh oooh” which turns increasingly into “aaah aaah aaah aaah”. However, Mick becomes increasingly desperate as the slinky wah-wah guitar comes in and he recounts a ‘phone call from a friend who wants “to come around twelve with some Puerto Rican girls who are just dying to meet you.”

Mick’s not interested and whines “oh, everybody waits so long!” before demanding “Won’t you come on! Come on!” The Rolling Stones were influenced by New York currently and in an echo of “Midnight Rambler” he breathes “I’ve been walking in Central Park, singing after dark, people think I’m crazy, I’ve been stumbling on my feet shuffling through the street, asking people, “What’s the matter with you boy?””. The instrumental break featuring sax from Mel Collins and Sugar Blue’s harmonica fits into the groove so well you can barely hear Ian McLagan’s electric piano.

Mick tries to trick himself into thinking she’s just another tease but he admits at the end, “Lord, I miss you child”.

Miss You is one the Stones’ best songs and a strong opener.

When The Whip Comes Down is more straightforward, a hard-rocking, raunchy riff from Keith before Mick, drowning in the sound, delivers a brilliant testimony of a rent boy but the music keeps assaulting him and obscures the subject just enough for radio play. The pedal steel guitar from new member Ron Wood is great before in the last minute, the thrash becomes a thunk and gathers new energy for a chaotic close.

A cover of the Temptations’ Just My Imagination (Running Away From Me) is next and it’s more up tempo than the original and the electric guitars are more prominent making it rougher and tougher, but it’s still a faithful and reverential version, in fact the Stones liked it so much it appeared on the 1982 live album Still Life.

If Some Girls was to out-punk the punks, the title track definitely steals The Stranglers’ crown of gross misogyny. Jagger drawls a list of racial stereotypes that utterly fails as a mockery of the stereotypes placed on women, as Jagger has stated as its intention. The only thing that saves it is the curious arrangement and strangulated harmonica solos.

Lies isn’t much better with its bitch-dissing, but the music speeds past you don’t care and strangely when Mick hollers “LIES, LIES, LIES, LIES!” it echoes the Sex Pistols’ “Liar”. Far Away Eyes is another unfunny piss-take, this time turning it onto the bible belt of the southern states of America, Mick putting on an ultra-sarcastic country drawl for the performance, despite Keith singing it on the demo. The strange thing is some of the very best Stones songs are country-based, “Honky Tonk Women”, “Wild Horses” and “Sweet Virginia” to name but three and Keith Richards’ own love of country and their friendship with Gram Parsons. Ron Wood delivers some of the best pedal steel guitar this side of Bakersfield. Maybe Some Girls was handbags-at-dawn for Mick and Keith.

Respectable is a breathless, rollicking 12-bar sprint in the style of earlier song “Bitch” and is usually heard as a slag-off of Mick’s wife Bianca. It’s also self-deprecating in its context, especially the line about shooting up with the President. The best thing is how it’s a real band effort, with Mick contributing guitar himself.

If you’ve read up to now, you’re probably wondering where Keith is, well his very own Before They Make Me Run is next and it’s one of the best on the album, a rousing rebel rock song about his riskier lifestyle choices and increasingly wizened appearance summed up when he sings “I wasn’t looking too good but I was feeling real well”.

Beast Of Burden is a hurt, glowering soul ballad which seems to be about begging a woman for a shag, especially the gorgeous trill of “You’re a pretty pretty pretty pretty pretty girl” but it was actually written as a “thank you” from Keith to Mick for giving him a shoulder during Keith’s drug problems in the mid-1970’s. You can take it straight with Mick’s self-questioning and defiance, though. Ron Wood also contributes a great solo.

The final track Shattered is almost post-modern in its punkishness and over a New York Dolls-like thrash Mick surveys the carnage, despite being from Dartford himself. The “people dressed in plastic bags directing traffic” are punks. However, when he hollers “ain’t you hungry for success, success, SUCCESS, SUCCESS! Does it matter?! Does it matter?” Yes, it does because “pride and joy and greed and sex, that’s what makes our town the best! Pride and joy and dirty dreams and still surviving on the street and look at me – I’m in tatters, yeah!” and he invites us to “go ahead, bite the Big Apple, don’t mind the maggots!”. The excellent backing vocal “shadoobie” is the cherry on top.

An example of Mick’s extraordinary ability to inhabit other personalities and one of Keith’s best riffs, it’s one the very best Stones songs and a brilliant and fitting closer to a superb album.

Some Girls is the best post-Exile On Main Street Stones album and an essential purchase.

March 3, 2013 Posted by | The Rolling Stones Some Girls | | Leave a comment

The Rolling Stones Undercover (1983)


This album does not get the credit it deserves – among music fans or anywhere else for that matter. Too many times it is written off as a conjunction of the Stones playing at the eighties, with a throwback to the edginess of the punk-dominated late seventies and the Stones missing their aim by some considerable degree wide of the mark. Yet, when all is said and done, this is a good solid listen. The Stones knew their craft and they could belt out some classics when they wanted too. They sure belted out a few on this one despite the negativity.
OK, if you don’t like the Stones you are probably not going to like this. And if you are new to the Stones then I would agree that this is not a place you should start to explore the band and all they have to offer. But the Stones had latched on to a formula for albums and it had worked for them so well over the years, so why change it. That may be the antithesis of what we expect from music these days, but in truth, everyone needs a reference point and the Stones provide musically as a good a reference point as you can get.

The Stones’ later catalogue has been derided as a pale rehashing their old material and relying on a surfeit of sexist and sexual imagery to sell. That accusation does not give due credit to what the Stones are. Simply put, they do not need to pretend to be great rockers – they simply are great rockers. And as for using sex to sell, well surely that is a barb too deep: a) sex sells anyway whether or not the Stones or someone else does it and b) the Stones have been doing it for years and continue to do it better than almost anyone else. They may no longer have been the only ones striking this pose, but they provided a template for others to follow and mimic, and sometimes the pupil can outshine the master.

Whether it is the suggestive smuttiness of “Undercover of the Night”, the brazenly exploitative cover of a naked woman in a pose which suggests bondage and sexual humiliation or whether it is the gore-slaked video of “Too Much Blood” the Stones showed they were still able to engage in controversy when they felt like it. You could argue that the band were simply going through the motions this time and that they were being controversial for the sake of it – an attempt to boost a flagging career with some good honest filth, but again you would be wide of the mark.

So in retort, “the times have changed and the Stones haven’t changed with them.” Maybe that is true, but has no one around here heard of the oft-used cliché, enduring popularity. In truth, when someone writes off the Stones as simply going through the motions, you must remember that the Stones doing that, if that is a fair critique of their approach, then they do it far better than the rest. And apart from anything else, this album has aged a lot better than many of its critics would have imagined it capable of when it first came out.

So come on, listen to this for what it is. A few great tracks and a couple of fillers. That has been the Stones way for decades. When they rock they rock, so rock with it and ditch the prejudices. This may not be the best Stones album of all time – far from it – but it still has plenty to offer and to ignore that offering is to overlook the fact that the Stones were, by this time, the only band who were capable of doing this just as they had twenty years before (albeit in somewhat different circumstances).

March 3, 2013 Posted by | The Rolling Stones Undercover | | Leave a comment

The Rolling Stones Voodoo Lounge (1994)

images (1)From

Well, Flashpoint might have been a ‘signal’, but it’s with this album that the band has finally and forever settled into old age. Perhaps the most wonderful thing about it is that they do not try to sound other than they are, if you know what I mean. Sure, Jagger wouldn’t be Jagger if he hadn’t sucked in a few up-to-date fashionable ideas (like that grunge thing, for one), but it’s one thing to inject a few fresh-looking trends and another thing to overdo it. Just about every review in existence always points out that Voodoo Lounge is quintessential Rolling Stones: the best gift for a hardcore Stones fan that could ever come into existence in 1994. No more senseless barking on every corner; no more phoney punkish posturing; no more mindless hour-long disco throwaways – just your average selection of classy tracks, full of delicious guitar chops and everything. Since this is the Nineties for Chrissake, one can’t but lament a bunch of filler tracks, too, but there are fewer of those than you’d actually wish, and the better material is definitely attention-activating.

The rockers, in particular, are among their best in years. ‘You Got Me Rocking’ is a rollickin’ anthemic song set to a hardroarin’ riff, and it’s long since become a stage favourite and a near-classic for the band: no mean feat, considering that the last time the Stones came up with a “timeless” rocking anthem was with ‘Start Me Up’ thirteen years earlier. ‘You Got Me Rocking’ is just what is needed: no message, no philosophy, no ambiguity, just a mighty punch that shows the Stones can still outrock all ’em youngsters. Let me hear Limp Bizkit come up with a riff like that! I’m all ears.

The other rockers are notable, too: ‘I Go Wild’ has some of the most fascinating guitar interplay you’d ever witness on a Stones’ record (in concert, Mick would even strap on a guitar to try and preserve some of the intricate, head-spinning ‘weaving’ techniques of the song), and is at least as grungey as anything ever put out by any Seattle band. ATTENTION: I do not say ‘grungier’ – I just point out that Richards and Co. had mustered that form of music-making to a tee, much like they’d mastered the punkish form back in 1978. ‘Sparks Will Fly’, too, has a 100-percent original and funny melody combined with gross lyrics about fucking her sweet ass (Mr J just can’t resist inserting one of those lines, you know). Wish I could write a three-minute song like that… er, with an original and funny melody, I mean, not necessarily with gross lyrics. Me, I’d never use the word ‘ass’ in a song. Except as an obscure Jennifer Lopez reference, maybe.

The ballads, in general, also improve over the somewhat generic Steel Wheels pattern – I’ll be the first to note that ‘Out Of Tears’ is a song perfectly suited for MTV, you know, one of those slow-moving, plodding, hookless ballads like Gary Moore’s ‘Still Got The Blues’ and co., but it’s not adult contemporary: it’s a guitar and piano based ballad that doesn’t have a tremendously interesting melody, but it at least has one, and it doesn’t try to mask its poorness by waves upon waves of powerchords like… er… all those miserable Aerosmith power ballads, for instance. Don’t believe me? Play ‘Crying’ next to ‘Out Of Tears’. You’ll feel the difference soon enough, I guarantee it.

Some of the tracks are really nostalgic, harking back to those great days in the Sixties when this whole business sounded as fresh as anything (‘Moon Is Up’ – romantic psychedelia; ‘Blinded By Rainbows’, which does recall ‘She’s A Rainbow’ because the titles are similar, although the melodies are not). The blues number ‘Brand New Car’ is certainly not original, but the way it sounds – with Mick strutting out his voice as far as possible, guitars ringing out loud and horns poking at the exactly needed moments – really suggests that this was probably the first album since… maybe even since the early Seventies, on which they really cared more about the music than about their image.

Still, how could we get away without some biting critique? Not all is THAT good. Some of Jagger’s tracks still carry the insignia of his trendy experimentations (the lame generic funk throwaway ‘Suck On The Jugular’; the sweety accordeon-driven ‘Sweethearts Together’, overproduced and oversapped ad nauseam). Holy Mother, if there is a threat to that RS sound, it’s in Mick. Maybe these tracks do have that commercial type of sound which gladdens Mick’s heart, but what is he expecting? What’s his desire? Be loved by young kids now or be revered by clever people in a hundred years’ time? You tell me… But don’t take this as a condemnation of Mr Jagger, please; I’ll always be the first to admit that if not for Mick, the Stones would have run out of steam by the early Seventies, thoroughly and completely. It’s just that Jagger, just like his faithful disciple Mr David Bowie, is often walking a thin line between experimentation and stupid tasteless following of commercial trends.

Anyway, there’s also a couple of ballads that don’t really make it for me. Jagger’s ‘New Faces’ is an uninspired and painfully artificial stab at a 16th century-type ballad (even though the lyrics are telling), and Keith’s ‘Thru And Thru’ is the usual sloppy wailing, six minutes long this time. Beh. Even Charlie’s thunderous drums don’t enliven it up. (Then again, he compensates with ‘The Worst’ which may well be his best ballad. What a paradox, eh…) But – thank God! – this lengthy six-minute bore is not deemed to become the album closer. Instead, they let rock one more time with ‘Mean Disposition’ – a simple, but catchy generic rocker. A wise move. Once again, reminds us of earlier times. Yahoo!

So what’d I say? A pretty good album. I didn’t mention ‘Love Is Strong’, didn’t I? Well, if you heard the song already, you’ll know it’s great, and if you haven’t, let me leave you with just one pleasant surprise. And Voodoo Lounge? It’s undoubtedly the Some Girls of the Nineties – it had earned the Stones a near-complete indulgence on the part of critical opinion. See now what makes these guys so five-star-worthy? It’s not the mere fact that they had stayed around for so long (so did Jethro Tull and the Bee Gees); it’s the fact that thirty years after their debut album, they’re still able to come up with top-notch material. Who else can do that? Yeah, I know it’s a banal and stupid question, but truth is, it’s a question that has no answer that would be unfavourable to the Glimmer Twins.

March 3, 2013 Posted by | The Rolling Stones Voodoo Lounge | | Leave a comment