With the CD wallpapering the racks during the previous four years or so, it was only going to be natural that Voodoo Lounge became the Stones’ longest recording. In the moment it was also their most successful in terms of grossing revenue from a supporting world tour. It’s true, one of the world oldest continuing bands still, at this point, had plenty of firepower and generational gravity to bolster its success, whether or not it came from one of their less memorable releases.
And with a tasty bite sized opener like “Love is Strong”, why would you question any of this? After all, any album this group releases will mostly like chart-top following the weeks after its offering, even if a third of its listening populace take a few months to grapple new-coming technologies. Despite having such a commercial sensation, the album falls short of their magnum opuses of previous decades. Not necessarily musically, but mainly through its bothersome conceptuality and lack of definitive direction.
After bassist Bill Wyman’s departure following 1989’s Steel Wheels, the band were left little more than his melting rubber. And while they’d (Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in particular) force themselves not to admit it, the effects to a degree, overshadow the album’s nude, back-to-basics approach.
There’s most likely more instrumentation here then other records, even its successors, but it’s as sparse as the fifteen tracks could lop back — an attempt perhaps to fill a missing member’s square hole with a round peg? Still, the roots-rock doesn’t fail them on many occasions such as “Love is Strong”, “You Got Me Rocking” and “Sparks Will Fly” — three upbeat embellishments which open the album as if were meant to be a late 70s classic. Afterward, the feel diminishes and is only revisited via the exits of “New Faces’” acoustic prettiness, Out of Tears’” reflective mourning piano, and “I Go Wild’s” boisterous eccentricity.
“Thru and Thru” is the final shimmer and thankfully a track that leaves a few resounding moments of value at penultimate fourteen. Cutting the fat there would have sufficed, though so could the negating at least four other unnecessary tracks; take your pick really. Possibly out of a desire to make amends of apparent loss in colour after the 80s tension, the band finds themselves tinkering with musical assortment until they’re ironically mixed into dull shades of grey.
The familiar faces of the accordion/organ/saxophone/trumpet all leave their marks between the weaving rock & roll of Richards’ and Ronnie Wood’s chordal guitar licks — somehow a tin whistle managed to make the cut this time — Jagger mingles with his raspy throat while having his usual percussive (tambourine/maracas) flourishes shake his can. It sounds well enough to be everything rolling alongside the Stones, but in fact it’s merely the erosion catching you off guard.
You’ll be left listening waiting for a possible moment of clever clamouring, but instead all you’re left are a few groovy well-rounded tracks, another few that they’ve done before more vigorously in the previous thirty years, and finally a whole lot more that are just too overly self-indulgent for their own good.
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.
Gone are the smooth moves, trendy nods and lackluster songcraft of Dirty Work and Steel Wheels, the Rolling Stones’ last two studio discs. The band’s new album, Voodoo Lounge, is ragged and glorious, reveling in the quintessential rock & roll the Stones marked as their own some 30 years ago. Plumbing the past to cop riffs from their classics, the Stones perfect their rebel stance in the service of pleasure, with producer Don Was working to bring it all up to date. Together, they keep the grooves short and mean, making for an album that’s tight without being overprocessed, neat without being nice.
The incomparable Charlie Watts is Voodoo’s secret weapon, from the album’s opening snare-drum volley to the effortless swing of its sign-off, “Mean Disposition.” Watts’ command allows new bassist Darryl Jones to easily click into place. (Bill who?) Keith Richards plays fast and loose, and Ron Wood adds his own torn and frayed finesse to Richards’ vamps. Mick Jagger’s singing is pure pleasure.
While they echo the usual catalog of references — Chuck Berry in “Mean Disposition,” Gram Parsons in “The Worst” — the songs on Voodoo Lounge find the Stones charged with renewed musical nerve: the skewed R&B of “Baby Break It Down”; “Moon Is Up,” where the “mystery drum” Watts brushes is an upside-down garbage can; the country-Celtic folk of the Richards-sung “The Worst” (with Wood on sweet pedal steel); the Caribbean skip of “Sweethearts Together.” On “Love Is Strong,” Jagger’s skanking harp (shades of “Miss You”) and predatory vocal chart a dangerous path, though not without humor: “My love is strong/And you’re so sweet/And someday, babe/We got to meet.” “You Got Me Rocking” is a throwback to Exile on Main Street-vintage bar-brawl tunes like “Rip This Joint.”
On the stunning ballad “Out of Tears” (featuring Chuck Leavell’s dreamy piano), Jagger drops attitude to sing couplets of crushing pain: “I can’t feel/Feel a thing/I can’t shout/I can’t scream.” On the other hand, “Thru and Thru” demonstrates that the Stones are still capable of extreme daffiness, as Richards, by now a full-fledged admiral in the nasal academy, sings passionately of a love as constant … as a 24-hour market (“You know that we do takeaway/But we deliver, too …”).
Just as Jagger’s latest solo outing, Wandering Spirit, proved far stronger than his first two, so Voodoo Lounge is leagues ahead of the last few Stones records. Not surprisingly, the record is suffused with sex, ironic or otherwise. But now, while still pussy crazy after all these years, Jagger asserts his unflagging drive while singing tenderly about his fears of aging and loss of potency.
Hence the procession of sweet things ready to fuel the flagging flames. Wandering Spirit’s immortal motto (“I’m as hard as a brick/Hope I never go limp,” from “Wired All Night”) has ballooned into Voodoo Lounge’s cornucopia of concupiscence: “You make me hard/You make me weak” (“Love Is Strong”); “Sparks will fly/When I get myself back on you, baby” (“Sparks Will Fly”); “Jack her up, baby, go on, open the hood/I want to check if her oil smells good/Mmm — smells like caviar” (“Brand New Car”). Jagger can’t help it; he’s just afraid of running out of time. It’s not odd in this context to find the horny funk of “Holetown Prison (Suck on the Jugular)” with lyrics like “All get together and fuck all night…. Let’s live lasciviously” side by side with a lovely study of faith and fate, the anti-violence “Blinded by Rainbows”: “Do you fear the final hour/Do you kneel before the cross….”
While Jagger and company are busy logging time on the sex beat, their sex-and-romance lyrics can also be read as a metaphor for career. The assertion that they can jolly well keep up artistically and commercially peeks out from under the tellingly titled “New Faces.” With its “Lady Jane”-style harpsichord, the song mock-dramatizes a lover’s comeuppance by a “figure of youth”: “He stands so aloof/With an indolent air/And an insolent stare.” Still, the upstart may end up “rotting in hell” for presuming to take the mantle.
On “Out of Tears,” Jagger faces down mortality: “I just can’t pour my heart out/To another living thing/I’m a whisper/I’m a shadow/But I’m standing up to sing.” But just in case you think he’s gone all sensitive, meet “I Go Wild,” on which a “raggedy dog” sniffs out some girls: “And the doctor says/You’ll be OK/And if you’d only/Stay away/From femmes fatales/And dirty bitches/And daylight drabs/And nighttime witches… And politicians’ garish wives/With alcoholic cunts like knives.”
From Beggars Banquet to Sticky Fingers, the Stones tantalized me into adolescence. I was 10 or 11 when I heard “Stray Cat Blues” and “Live With Me.” That they also sang about “stupid girls” was lost on me then but not for long. The Stones, however, haven’t much changed on this score. They maintain their Stone Age attitudes about women and sex even as they pass through middle age with lyrics that today’s alternahunks wouldn’t be caught dead singing.
The other day a friend dismissed the bravado of one line off of Voodoo (“I’m gonna fuck your sweet ass,” from “Sparks Will Fly”), grumbling, “Why don’t they sing about stuff that really concerns them, like chronic back pain or tax dodging?” Worthy topics, to be sure, yet I maintain that Mick still means it — this grandfather is still high on hormones and happier for it.
This is not the greatest of Stones albums. It is better than some and not as bad as it is often held to be. In the end you have to like it just because it is catchy and has some truly inspired moments in places. The Stones may not be politically correct and there is something rather sad about listening to a nearly sixty year old Mick Jagger trying to sound down and dirty about shagging as if he were a teenager. But in the end, it all part of the Stones’ charm. This is getting back to their rock and roll heritage (yes, we can call it that now after thirty years) with some good riffs and some occasionally good lyrics. Given the choice between listening to this and listening to the drivel of mainstream radio, there really is no contest.
As is so often the case with Stones’ albums, the opener is one of the best tracks. It may be formulaic, but if you always start of with a number which is typical of the stuff which got you where you are, then you are not really going to go wrong. “Love Is Strong” is a typical Stones rocker and what you expect when you open up the Stones. Indeed, if it weren’t for this style of “grab ‘em by the balls with the opener and see how long you can hold on to them after that” then a Rolling Stones album wouldn’t really be a Rolling Stones album.
However, as had been the case with Stones albums for a long time, this is not maintained throughout the whole album. The band seem not to try on occasions and rely on standard riffs and musical patters, sometimes daft lyrics and the occasional overuse of an Anglo-Saxon word for copulation to pull them through. When they resort to this it doesn’t work anymore. Oddly, when they delve into the slower numbers on the album, such as “New Faces”, vaguely reminiscent of their mid-sixties flirtation with quasi-medieval themes, “Out of Tears” and “Baby Break It Down”, the thought that they put into the music becomes apparent. These are the better quality tracks on the album by any reasonable assessment. Is it perhaps indicative of a latent desire to slow down? Is age finally catching up with Mick, Keef and the rest?
Now you would have thought that if you had a sense that you were struggling to maintain a momentum, you wouldn’t try to prolong the agony. After all, if you are putting a lot of filler into an album, it kind of makes sense to shorten the album so less filler tracks appear and your intent becomes less obvious. Quite why then the band should have decided to stretch this out to over 61 minutes is quite beyond me. OK a CD can hold more music, but that does not necessarily mean that you are short changing people if you don’t fill it up. The result of this perhaps misguided act is to highlight even more than otherwise would have been the case that there is not sufficient material on the album of any quality. Scrap five of the weaker tracks and you have a perfectly good, solid forty-minute album of reasonable quality music left to enjoy.
However, the biggest downer I have on it by far is that it has the cover I hate the most out of all Stones releases. It is frankly hideous. I don’t know what happened to the artistic creativity of earlier Stones album covers but it had long since disappeared from view with this cover. If not for that, this album may have even got a higher rating.