September 15, 2005

Old School

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When The Rolling Stones announced earlier this year that they would launch a nationwide stadium tour, there were certainly cries of, “Why don’t they just retire already?” among music critics and fans. The Stones are certainly not getting any younger. The energy and rock star attitude that propelled them to stardom 40 years ago has dwindled, and their lack of any serious creative luster in the past decade has rendered them a nostalgia act.

If A Bigger Bang, the Rolling Stones’ first full-length studio album in eight years was a complete disappointment, it would not have been surprising. After all, these geriatric rockers have weathered it all: drug arrests, band member deaths, scandals involving the Canadian government and countless personnel changes.

A Bigger Bang, however, is the furthest thing from disappointing. I expected the songs to have the sterile feel of “Don’t Stop,” The Stones’ single released in conjunction with the 2002 release Forty Licks, the latest Rolling Stones greatest hits compilation. I was astonished to find that these songs actually rocked. The guitar playing is prominent, distorted and aggressive; the vocals are raw and the work of heavyweight producer, Don Was, is top-notch.

The band is essentially the core unit that has been touring for the past five years, with dynamic duo Mick Jagger and Keith Richards doing all of the songwriting and really providing the backbone for all of the tracks. Jagger, known primarily as a vocalist, adds guitar or bass to every song, while Keith Richards handles the lead vocal responsibilities on “This Place is Empty,” a slow-paced acoustic number as well as the album closer, “Infamy.”

The Stones paint with a diverse palette here, employing several aspects of their signature sound to keep the listener interested for the entire 64 minutes. Straight ahead rock is the flavor of the single “Rough Justice” while “Rain Fall Down” is a laid back groove reminiscent of their 1978 hit, “Miss You.” With a syncopated bass line, pocket drumming and a funky guitar strum, “Rain Fall Down” could even be considered danceable.

“Sweet Neo Con,” which features a groove similar to that of “Rain Fall Down,” along with some bluesy harmonica playing by Mr. Jagger, is a rare political statement, satirically commenting on recent American paternalism. “It’s liberty, for all / Democracy’s our style/Unless you are against us / Then it’s prison without trial.” For the most part though, the lyrics on the album are more along the lines of typical Rolling Stones love songs with a touch of misogyny and innuendo. Take for example, “Rough Justice,” which opens the album with Jagger shouting “One time you were my baby chicken / Now you’ve grown into a fox / Once upon a time / I was your little rooster / but now I’m just one of your cocks.”

The instrumentals on A Bigger Bang is superb as well. Ronnie Wood, who has served up a plethora of tasteful guitar parts for The Stones since the beginning of his tenure with the band in the mid-1970s, contributes an interesting array of parts here, including some slide playing and a number of memorable solos, such as that on “Look What the Cat Dragged In.” Keith Richards, traditionally a rhythm guitarist, provides some skillful lead guitar work on “Dangerous Beauty,” sounding infinitely improved from his solos on the classic “Sympathy for the Devil.” Original member and cancer survivor Charlie Watts drums ferociously and soulfully, keeping excellent time without getting too fancy. Bassist Darryl Jones, a recent addition to The Rolling Stones, shows off his versatility, handling the rock parts as well as the funkier numbers without ever breaking a sweat. Last but not least, Chuck Leavell, a long-time veteran of the classic rock scene and perhaps best remembered for his timeless piano solo on the Allman Brothers Band’s “Jessica,” touches up this album with some creative organ and piano parts.

On top of the great backing lies the impressive vocal attack of Mick Jagger. In contrast to “Don’t Stop,” on which he sang with very little emotion and inflection, Jagger tears into much of the material here. “Laugh, I Nearly Cried,” really shows off what Mick can do, even within a limited range. His use of vibrato adds a passionate layer to the track and the ease with which he undertakes his vocal runs, sliding from note to note, would lead the unknowing listener to believe that this was the Mick Jagger of old rather than a man of 60 years.

Even upon the first listen, it is clear that The Stones are once again running on all cylinders, coasting along nicely without any of the expected signs of rust. The interplay between all of the musicians is effortless. This is the sound of The Rolling Stones of old. I now regret not trying to get tickets for the current tour, but those fans that remained loyal and bothered to go on Ticketmaster for the opportunity to see The Stones this fall will likely be rewarded. A Bigger Bang is unequivocally the best work The Rolling Stones have done in the past 20 years, if not more, and should be treated as such. If this is not a career-reviving comeback album, I don’t know what is.

Archived article by Scott Eisman
Sun Staff Writer