On the Rocks

Review: The Rolling Stones, ‘Blue & Lonesome’

December 17, 2016

Did you hear that Mick Jagger and wife or girlfriend number-I’m-not-sure had a little boy? At age 73, he's still a little more than a quarter-century shy of the Abrahamic hundred attested by Genesis 21:5—a record likely to stand for a long while, I would guess—but still, kudos. According to the Daily Star, he has promised to pay £14,000 per month (an oddly specific figure, no?) in child support and buy "a multi-million dollar home" for Melanie Hamrick and his eighth child.

I wanted to get the congratulations out of the way because I have nothing but hard things to say about the new Stones record, which hit number one a few days ago. Everyone will argue that Blue & Lonesome is the boys' best album since Tattoo You, and everyone will be right. What's important is pointing out what a thin achievement that is. The only thing I recall about 2006's A Bigger Bang, apart from the fact that Rolling Stone called it the second-best album of the year, is the first verse from the first song on the first side:

Once upon a time I was your baby chicken
Now I’ve grown into a fox
Once upon a time I was your little rooster
Now I’m just one of your cocks

Get it? Mick made a penis joke and a Willie Dixon reference! Those naughty boys, still at their naughty ways—and so in touch with their roots in the American blues tradition. I remember that and—I'm strumming away at those mystic chords of m. now—an anti-Bush protest song so feeble that it makes Conor Oberst's "When the President Talks to God" sound like Dylan doing "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" live in his prime. But I digress. Anyway, before that LP—way before, as in almost 10 years earlier—there was that record I think of as The One With the Weird Lion on the Cover That Almost Looks Like it Could be a Styx Album. k.d. [sic] lang [sic] wrote a song or half of a song for it, albeit accidentally, and the Dust Brothers produced some tracks. There was sampling and the drums sounded like crap. Before, uhh, Bridges to Babylon, there was Voodoo Lounge, which had one song that sounded like both a recent Keith Richards solo single and "When the Whip Comes Down," and Steel Wheels, which had one song, "Almost Hear You Sigh," that I almost like. Then you have that one you always see cheap at thrift stores where they're all wearing neon pink jackets and the one with "Undercover of the Night" on it and then you're back to Tattoo You.

And what about Tattoo You? I for one applaud the Chi-Coms for refusing the lads permission to play "Start Me Up" in Beijing and like to think that it had as much to do with their wanting to hear "2000 Man" as it did with the song's cheap obscenity. "Waiting on a Friend" is very touching, though it could have done with a much simpler, "Dead Flowers"-style arrangement. Maybe if the album had been released, say, last year as a collection of rarities and outtakes—which is what it really is—I would like it more.

All of which is to say, Blue & Lonesome is no Tattoo You, and Tattoo You isn't much to lean on. The new album is a collection of electric blues covers—Memphis Slim, Jimmy Reed, Little Walter, and of course, Willie Dixon. That shouldn't necessarily be a bad thing. With the possible exception of The Animals at their best, the Stones were the British best interpreters of American blues and R&B tunes working in the early '60s. I recently picked up an original mono pressing of The Rolling Stones, Now!. It's not a clean copy, mind you: I’d call it maybe VG minus, but with the tracking force up on my old Pioneer you burn right through the surface noise. The first time I played it, when "Mona" came on at the end of side one—maracas, reverb for days, that ethereal tremolo that snaps you in the ears like a bullwhip—I'm pretty sure the neighbors thought about calling the cops. Grab any of the pre­-Satanic Majesties albums, London or Decca, and go right down the list: Mick, Keith, et al. rarely wrote bangers but they were recording them on a track-for-track basis for almost half a decade.

These days something is missing. Maybe it's the painfully hokey artificial distortion on Mick's mic, clearly meant to evoke the crappy equipment you hear on glorious old Chess 78s. Maybe it's the vocals themselves, which are loud and thin, just like the mixing job by goodness knows whom at Mark Knopfler's West London studio. Maybe it's the absence of acoustic guitar. Maybe it's having to see Eric Clapton's name in the credits. Maybe it's that painfully lazy album cover putting me in the wrong state of mind or maybe it's the fact that the bass is absolutely buried in every single one of these songs. Maybe they just need some damn maracas. All I know is that I listened to the whole thing twice and found it utterly unmemorable when it wasn't downright embarrassing, as on "Everybody Knows About My Good Thing" and "I Gotta Go." My main impression is of a group of well-meaning 50- or 60- or maybe, yes, 70-something dorks, guys you might listen to for a song or two at the Western Maryland Blues Fest in between getting a beer and finding the outhouse and say to yourself, "Not bad, but that singer is trying too hard to sound like Mick Jagger." Track after track I waited for those "Mona" chills only to find my thoughts drifting to things like how stale the box of Honey Nut Cheerios my daughter has just spilled on the floor is and whether I need to pick up more Miller High Life before Safeway stops selling and what my favorite Febreze scent is.

Speaking of bass, though, and of history, it is worth pointing out that Darryl Jones has now been the band's bassist for 23 years, 17 more years than Mick Taylor was a Stone. (Brian Jones barely even lived that long.) Why is he still listed as an "additional" musician rather than a member of the group on the jacket of this new LP? After Ronnie Wood joined up as a touring guitarist in 1975, he was an official member of the band photographed on the cover of Black and Blue. Make him a Stone already.

Anyway, if I were a nihilist I would say that I am firmly against the whole rock-stars-getting-clean thing that's become so familiar to us from the shelves of bestselling memoirs they've graced us with for the last decade or so. What I'm really against is exertion. Evelyn Waugh, for example, took massive amounts of drugs and wrote The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, a masterpiece of English prose, got clean(ish), stopped writing novels, pounded out his memoirs, and died on Easter Sunday in glorious prospect of the Beatific Vision. For some reason these guys keep making records, which is a shame not least because Keef's Life is in many ways superior to A Little Learning. The World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band? Maybe, if the competition is Blueshammer.

Published under: Music Reviews