Monday, March 11, 2013

The Rolling Stones, Part 5

The Rolling Stones - Complete Discography - Part 5

Brussels Affair (2011, recorded in 1973)
Rating: 13
"Baby, won't you keep me happy?"
Best Song Midnight Rambler
Worst Song: You Can't Always Get What You Want

       One day in 2011, someone in the Stones marketing department must have said "Hey! What if we decided to release high quality versions of famous bootlegs over the years, and made people pay for them? Yeah, that's genius!", and thus the recent trend of releasing loads of recordings of classic Stones live shows was born. And it all started with this little beauty.
       For anyone wondering, this was recorded in Brussels a little after the release of Goats Head Soup. The thing is a staggering 80 minutes long, and most of the songs are from either Let it Bleed, Exile, or Goats Head. So, we finally reach the main question. Is it any good?
       Yes. Most certainly. Nearly as good as Ya-Ya's, in fact. But before I begin lavishly praising it, allow me to air a few grievances. First off, Jagger is inexcusably terrible. No, not Ya-Ya's mediocre. Bad. Like, really, really bad. He just barks and spits out the words the entire time, essentially ignoring any and all idea of vocal melody. On, say, "Midnight Rambler", this isn't too horrible, but on something like "Tumbling Dice"? Egh.
       Another thing I forgot to mention is that for this album, in addition to the full Stones ensemble, we also get some nice piano and organ bits, as well as a small horn section. The piano/organ works like a charm, and adds greatly to the experience, but the horns? Yikes. They work on a few occasions, but generally they sound pretty awful. Nowhere is this more evident than the painfully out-of-tune breaks on "All Down the Line". Trust me, you'll be clamoring for the horns from the studio version when you hear that. Heck, no horns at all would be better than THAT.
       The only entirely limp track here is the yawn-fest of "You Can't Always Get What You Want", which is slowed down and extended out to ELEVEN MINUTES. The slowed-down effect sounds cool for about a minute, as it gives a neat element of heaviness to the proceedings, but after a bit it just starts to DRAG and DRAG and DRAG on for seemingly forever. And then there's an endless saxophone solo, and...yeah, this one's not very good.
       But the following track, "Midnight Rambler" sure is!!!! Wowzers!!! They jacked the speed way up for this run-through, plus they lengthened it out to nearly THIRTEEN MINUTES, yet it still never gets boring! If there was one reason to buy this album, it's definitely this -- it's most certainly the best version of the track I've ever heard, and that's no lie. The jamming throughout is amazing (and in addition to the guitar licks, we also get some tasty organ fills and harmonica blowin'!), but the thing really reaches its full potential when Mick starts doing this growly call-and-response thing with the audience. It's hard to explain, but when you hear it you'll realize its awesomeness instantaneously. Ooooo, it's good. 
       Also fantastic is "Happy" which features Keith going absolutely nuts on the vocals. Technically, it's a HORRIBLE performance, but his ragged, manic voice combined with the ragged, manic horn and guitar parts just flat-out works. A massive load of fun.
       Oh, it's soloing you want? Well, barring "Rambler", of course, there's nothing approaching Ya-Ya's here, as far as amazing, memorable solos go. There are plenty of solos that are quite good, and loads of riffage, interplay, rhythm, and energy, but for jaw-droppingly good and notable solos? Look elsewhere. The whole thing is WAY looser and more sloppy than Ya-Ya's, but in all honesty...that's really what one would more naturally expect from a Rolling Stones live album, wouldn't it? 
       Still, all that aside, there is one other amazing solo, and that comes from the ridiculous theatrics of the closing "Street Fighting Man". Taylor pulls this REALLY random pseudo-prog tone (Think Selling England by the Pound-era Hackett crossed with a bagpipe. Yeah.) out of practically nowhere and rides it for the rest of the song, and while it's more than a bit strange, it's also quite cool.
       The Goats Head tracks are all fine and dandy, as well. The weakest link is definitely "Dancing with Mr. D" (those last few minutes really drag), but "Star Star" and "Heartbreaker" are loads of fun. Oh, and as far as soloing goes, I did forget to mention in the previous paragraph that "Heartbreaker" actually has a REALLY cool solo. It's got this sort of Neil Young thing going on, i.e., Keith gets this one sloppy riff going and keeps hitting the same notes over and over again for emotional impact and power, and this forms into something of a groove. Then Taylor starts working his magic over it, and's amazing.
       And hey, despite the constant talk of it never working live, "Gimme Shelter" is actually awesome! Sure, Mick does a horrible job with the singing, but the riffage and rhythm more than makes up for it.
       There are some other tracks, but generally all of those fall into the "Well played, but don't quite match up to the original" category. Still though, this is an excellent performance, as well as an easy 13 in my books. If you have any affinity for live Stones, or this era of the band's career, or heck, just the band itself, you owe it to yourself to check this out. How it took them this long to release this material I'll never know, but hey, it's here now, so do yourself a favor and track it down!

It's Only Rock 'n Roll (1974)
"'Cause there's some little jerk in the FBI / Keepin' papers on me, 6 feet high"
Best Song: Fingerprint File
Worst Song: If You Really Want to Be My Friend

       The critical reaction was Goats Head Soup was negative, to say the least, with many reviews calling for the band to leave stylistic variation behind and return to their rockin' roots. I don't completely disagree with this statement, since let's be honest -- the best tracks on Goats Head were the roots-rock ones, and I would imagine most thought that the band was still capable of pulling off a full-fledged followup to Exile on Main St. I mean, in 1974 there was nothing to indicate that the band would be unable to create another all-time classic album, was there? As far as everyone knew at this point, Goats Head was just a weird abberation, a single misfire that most hoped would lead to a massive comeback, an album just as good as the "Big 4".
       But you don't need me to tell you that this just wasn't happening. The Stones reacted to this criticism in an admittedly poor, but still logical way. They set out -- for the first time in their career, it seems -- to create an album not in the way that they wanted to, but because it seemed like this was what the public wanted. And sadly, it didn't work out -- with the exception of the title track, the album remains locked away in obscurity. It also happens to hold the unfortunate distinction of being their worst album of the 70s, and I really can't disagree with that.
       Throughout this whole LP, the band seems to be doing nothing more than screaming "WE'RE SO ROCK 'N ROLL, SEE?!? LISTEN TO OUR HARSH GUITAR TONES AND BARKING VOCALS! IT'S ONLY ROCK 'N ROLL, SEE?!? BUT I LIKE IT, YEAH! WOOO! ALRIGHT! LISTEN TO ME BARK! OH YEAHH! WE'RE THE GREATEST ROCK 'N ROLL BAND IN THE WHOLE FRIGGIN' WORLD!! well except for those reggae and funk tracks but other than that, ROCK AND ROLLLLLLL, MAAAAAAAAAANNNNN!!!!".
       This is not very pleasant. Downright irritating, in fact. This is where Mick decided that screaming and slobbering all over a recording for no reason was a good idea, sadly. Thankfully, he wouldn't resume this style 'till the early 80s, but this album definitely holds the genesis of the Dirty Work style of singing for Mr. Jagger, and that, as I'm sure you're aware, isn't a good thing. At all.
        Heck, this delivery is enough to ruin otherwise mediocre tracks like the opening "If You Can't Rock Me", which I ALWAYS skip. It just starts the whole proceedings out on the wrong foot, and...yeesh, this is probably the worst rocker the band had released up until now. And as for the title track, it's really catchy, and it's one of the band's calling cards for a reason, but how come no one has ever noticed that it sounds EXACTLY LIKE "BANG A GONG (GET IT ON)" BY T. REX?!?!? COME ON! The gruff guitar grunts, the big singalong chorus -- it's IDENTICAL. Of course, it's still a load of fun, and I enjoy it freely, but there is definitely some plagiarism at work here.
       And speaking of songs which I enjoy but are admittedly ripoffs, "Short and Curlies" is a fun little rocker, but it's still essentially "Rainy Day Women", is it not? But wahtever, the vocal melody's as catchy as ever, the bar-room piano is a nice touch, and the raucous delivery fits for once, so I'm satisfied. Same for the motown cover of The Temptations' "Ain't Too Proud to Beg", which sounds IDENTICAL to The Temptations' "Ain't Too Proud to Beg"! How dare they!!! I still like it though, if only for the epic electric piano tone and drum fills. And is it just me, or does it kinda sound like the weird Indian bridge of The Beatles' "Getting Better" when the song sorta drops out in the verses? I may just be going crazy...
       The ballads aren't much better -- "If You Really Want to Be My Friend" is the most repetitive, dull piece of gospel I've heard since Roxy Music's "Psalm", and at least that one had Bryan Ferry to keep things interesting. "'Till the Next Goodbye" is just as limp, although I must admit that the "I've been thinking of you" section is rather pleasant. Only the mellow jam session of "Time Waits for No One" (I can never read that title without wanting to make a "Tom Waits for No One" joke, so there, I did) is appealing to me in any way, but I am indeed quite fond of it -- Mick Taylor solos mightily enough there, and Mick Jagger's (I had to make the distinction between the Micks, you see) vocal melody is actually great! So we got a winner here -- finally.
       As I'm sure you all know, the only real classic here is "Fingerprint File", and while I don't like it as much as some seem to (John McFerrin's ridiculous adoration of this song is nearly as ridiculous as his saying that "Echoes" is the best thing Pink Floyd ever did, which is nearly as ridiculous as George Starostin giving London Calling a freakin' 12, which is nearly as ridiculous as Don Ignacio giving an early 2000s David Bowie album a perfect score, which is nearly as ridiculous as Cap'n Marvel randomly disappearing off the face of the earth. [Prindle escaped this tirade unscathed, somehow.]), I do indeed like it a lot. (Go ahead, check the original statment before that parenthetical rant) Bill's bass line is PHENOMENAL, Jagger does this awesome Michael Jackson-y vocal performance, the riffage is amazing throughout -- this is EASILY the band's best attempt at a funk song. Bravo, guys, you actually made something truly great on this album.
       Elsewhere, "Luxury" is a boring reggae attempt, and "Dance Little Sister" is a middling rocker. Sure, it's got good rhythm work from Keith, but that's really it. And okay, the vocal melody is decent, I guess. And that's your album. Of course, there's one more major negative that I forgot to deal with earlier -- the production. Uggggggghh. Gone are the days of the good 'ol fashioned Rolling Stones "crunch". Everything's drowned in mid-70s sludginess, the guitars are completely limp, and Charlie's drums have no real kick to them. It makes it quite hard to sit through (especially since a few of the songs are spotty), and that's nearly enough for me to give it a 9....but eh, it's a 10., it's a 9. No, it's a 10. No....OKAY IT'S A 9. There are only a few songs on here that are actually bad, but there are also hardly any songs on here that I would call essential, even for your average Stones diehard like myself. That coupled with the production leads me to give it the score I do. If you like the band, feel free to check it out, but if you only get the tracks I singled out as being're not missing much. And there's your WAY unnecessarily long review of It's Only Rock 'n Roll. If you made it through that...well done, good sir. Well done.

Black and Blue (1976)
Rating: 12
"Hannah Honey was a peachy kind of girl..."
Best Song: Memory Motel
Worst Song: Melody or Hey Negrita

       Hm. It's very underrated by all the mainstream rock press, but it's also a bit overrated here in the world of amateur rock review sites. It's still a classic, and it deserves to be listened to by any Stones fan...but quite a bit of the album does nothing for me.
       But let's start with the basics, eh? First off, it's a jam album, much mores than any other Stones release. But while nearly everything here is a jam, it manages to avoid becoming monotonous by having each one sound completely different. There's a reggae jam, and funk jam, a ballad-y jam, a pseudo-disco jam, a jazz jam -- they're all semi-directionless and instrumentally-focused, but they all sound completely different, so the album's never really boring.
       And I know what you're thinking -- "Oh no, this is going to be like 45 minutes of that 'Apple Jam' section from All Things Must Pass, isn't it?!" Thankfully, the answer is a definite no. While not they may not be particularly brilliantly created, all of these songs have definite melody and form, and that goes a long way as far as listenability is concerned.
       But I've yet to mention one very important fact -- Mick Taylor left the band after the last album. In the recent documentary Crossfire Hurricane, it was revealed that this was actually due to a heroin addiction, but never mind that -- the major thing to note here is that a replacement was needed. So, the band invited three guys to the sessions in order to try out -- Harvey Mandel, Wayne Perkins, and Ronnie Wood. Well, in the end, Ron Wood became the new lead guitarist for the Stones (a position he holds to this day), but on this album we get to hear from all three of 'em, leaving us with some very interesting guitar styles all throughout.
       Songs? Well, the funky "Hot Stuff" has some GREAT guitar interplay (even if the vocal melody is actually pretty bad, in my opinion), and "Cherry Oh Baby" is a great, fun reggae tune. "Fool to Cry" starts out as a decent enough (albeit cheesy) soft-rock ballad, but it eventually becomes jam towards the end. I'm not too crazy about that section, It doesn't really hurt the song much, I suppose.
       But ah, who cares about "Fool to Cry" when the album also contains another ballad that blows it right out of the water. Oh yes, it's the 7-minute epic "Memory Motel". Folks, I'm just gonna come right out and say it -- this is EASILY the best ballad the Stones ever did post-Exile. As much as I like the stuff on Tattoo You, this is most certainly better. The length, the amazing vocal melody, and (especially) Keith's constant electric piano pings all combine to make this one an absolutely astounding track. Plus, it features both Mick and Keith sharing a lead vocal, so that's nice as well.
       The only two tracks that I flat-out dislike are "Melody" and "Hey Negrita". "Melody" is a silly piece of lounge-jazz, and while it's relatively harmless, it's definitely overlong. Plus, Mick's delivery sometimes crosses the line from funny to irritating, so that doesn't help matters either. "Hey Negrita" is another funk jam, but this, I really don't care for it. The vocal melody is essentially nonexistent, but the soloing is indeed cool...for a little while. I'm sorry, but I just get tired after five minutes of this stuff. Not horrible, but nowhere close to a "lost classic", or anything of the sort.
       But then you have my other two favorites of the album, the riff-rockers "Crazy Mama" and "Hand of Fate". They both have AMAZING vocal melodies and AMAZING guitar riffs and interplay. (That ascending guitar line that comes in about halfway through "Crazy Mama" blows my mind each time I hear it) What more do you need to know??
       A very nice album indeed. Sure, there's nothing remotely serious about it, but it's got some great ideas on it, AND it's an absolute load of fun. Get it for the riff-rockers and "Memory Motel", but nearly everything on here is at the very least interesting. Probably the best of the post-Exile Stones albums that you would never buy unless you read about them on an online review site, if that makes any sense.

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