Saturday, September 24, 2005

Kat's Korner: Stones Keep Rolling

Kat: Rolling Stones. Yawn. New album. Bigger yawn. That's the general reaction in my crowd to the release of A Bigger Bang. Well your ennui is tres cool and, honestly, almost convincing. But we both know you're choking on the churned out crap shooting up the charts and longing for something real. So drop the pose already and listen to the Stones' latest.

This isn't a classic along the lines of Exile on Main Street but it lives up to the energy of Some Girls. First song coming up is "Rough Justice." The band plays it like they've got another "Sympathy for the Devil" on their hands. They don't. But with the playing and Mick Jagger's vocals, they have a solid opener that telegraphs instantly this isn't the usual "We've got a tour, let's put out product" that Stones fans have gotten used to (and burned by) in the last two decades.

"Let Me Down Slow" is one of their stronger numbers that will probably be loved only by true Stones devotees. (The way "Out of Time" is.) Let me explain that because it's been so damn long since the Stones mattered that the remark may confuse some. "Let Me Down Slow" is the sort of tune Stones lovers long for but rarely receive. Mick's got the snarl, the band's got the fire. Your head bobs along and you know this is one of the better moments. They aren't trying to be "with it" and embarrassing themselves in their desperation for a hit ("Harlem Shuffle"). The song's nothing that will convert a reluctant listener. But for those who love the band, this is heaven.

Say "Out of Time" to a non-Stones fan and you'll get a blank look. Say it to one of the faithful and you'll get a dissertation. "Let Me Down Slow" will excite the base because it shows the group's got it up and wagging it.

There are sixteen tracks on A Bigger Bang. The album would benefit from better sequencing. Had they opened with "Let Me Down Slow" and gone straight into "Streets of Love" this would be hailed as "genius." Instead the first is the second track and "Streets of Love" is track five.

"Streets of Love" is "Fool to Cry" and "Angie" rolled into one. This is what the nineties Aerosmith tried desperately to achieve but never really managed because there's ballad in the rock genre and then there's "power ballad" trying to invade the genre.

A power ballad, for those scratching their heads, is bound and determined to show you it's power and it is to rock what Whitney Houston is to pop. Those prone to melodrama are knocked out, those prone to music are appalled by the excess as every moment adds yet another layer of hand wringing and pathos. It's the difference between feeling and being guilt-f**ked.

Once "Streets of Love" fades, there are no more starts and stops, just a full blown Stones album. The blues tripping of "Back of My Hand" demonstrates that the last tour was a relearning experience for the group. (Maybe they doubted that their core still responded to blues numbers until they saw the live reaction?) "She Saw Me Coming" follows with the usual tongue flowing out of cheek machismo that no one else seems to have learned how to pull off.

"Kat, talk about the song."

Yeah, yeah, I know you're all waiting for that. I could talk about how great it is just to listen to the band and Mick lay down "Biggest Mistake" or talk about how "Laugh I Nearly Died," in a just world, would blast across the airwaves of every pop radio station in the country. But all you want to know is "Sweet Neocon."

How come you're so wrong
My sweet neo-con
Where's the money gone
In the Pentagon

It's not about the Bully Boy the same way Carly Simon's "You're So Vain" wasn't about a single person. While the latter was about vanity, the former is about insanity.

The insane administration includes, but is not limited to, the Bully Boy and you'll find that reflected in lyrics that speak of "a hypocrite" who thinks they are "a patriot," "democracy our style," "prison without trial" and a litany of other items via an administration determined to reject every notion our country is supposed to rest upon.

Mick's vocal choice is interesting on this song. He's never sounded more foreign. Which isn't to suggest more British. It's as though he's channeling the globe in this song which, considering the topic, he just may be.

All the talk over "Sweet Neocon" seems to have allowed "Dangerous Beauty" to slip under the radar. Though Lynndie England's more likely to be compared to Scott Baio's Chachi than to a "Dangerous Beauty," this song has ref points to Abu Ghraib:

Who you got there in that hood
You look so fancy in those photographs
With your rubber gloves on
But you're a favorite with
the Chiefs of Staff
You're doing such a wonderful job
You're a natural at working with dogs
Keeping everyone awake at night
With a touch of the prods

That's the Stones having the guts Bob Dylan's lost somewhere down Highway 61 which truly can't be revisted.

There's something about a Stones album, or a Dylan or a Diana Ross. Fans feel burned. You started off in this strong partnership with the artists, convinced they could do no wrong and then you come across an album that you try to defend, then one you can't but you're willing to keep silent, then another and you're just sick of it. The (early) catalogue that makes them can also be the (later) catalogue that breaks them. This is especially true when they team up with "star producers" who try to add "modern" touches. (Didn't anyone heed Dionne Warwick's cry "Don't Make Me Over"? Apparently not, including Warwick.)

After awhile, you start to feel as though you're in it for the music but the artist is in it for the money as they coast from one album to another and you ponder how much you can get for the now used CD you're embarrassed to have in your collection.

It's a tough road to walk down. As Joni Mitchell's often noted, you change and you're tossed on the cross for that, you stay the same and you're still crucified. But it's also true that when you go from exploring to putting out product, old friends have a right to look at you and note you've changed. (Until the mid-nineties, Mitchell avoided product. Recent releases indicate she's hell bent to make up for that.)

So I can understand fans being leery. This is a pricey purchase especially for a group that's biggest claim to an honest moment in recent years is probably "Mixed Emotions." But let me pull a page from the Carly Simon (song) book and act as older sister for a moment. Step into my room. It's okay, you don't have to stand in the hall. I won't yell at you to get out or scream, "Mom! The brat won't stop bothering me!"

I want to share the joys of this album, that's how strong it is. Hell, "This Place Is Empty," the Keith Richards sung song, is good enough to make you forgive, if not forget, his solo work. "Oh No Not You Again" will get your heart pumping but, road ragers beware, don't listen while stuck in a traffic jam.

"But Kat, my friends have written off the Stones!"

Their mistake. Look if you want what every other person is listening to, go buy Mariah. She's ripping off Karyn White and no one's calling her on it, so you can be one of the (dull) pack with that purchase. You can jaw about how she's come back from the crackup and how it's so hard being rich and toss in that owning Marilyn Monroe's piano makes her a victim by proxy. Or maybe one of the American Idols is gearing up for another product of filler, oversung and under thought.

But take it from your older sister Kat, those moments will haunt you later on in life -- the way Maggie's still bothered that she knows the words to "I Write the Songs." I agree "Superwoman" was an incredible song. In the eighties. Giving it new lyrics and a new title doesn't make it new, no matter how many high notes Mariah manages to molest.

Looking over the year thus far, what's emerging to me is that the artists who've earned that term and distinguished themselves (whether it's
White Stripes, Joan Baez or whomever) have all managed to ride the music, not to overpower it or be overpowered by it. Judy Collins set a standard with an album that truly breathed and the strong ones that have followed have repeated that trick. (Maggie, I'm not joking about wanting the Judy Collins CD returned now. It was a loan, not a gift.)

The Stones last tour, with no new songs to promote, may have given the band time to appreciate what exactly drew people to them in the first place. No screams for "Sex Drive" and no attempt to work new (weaker) material into the show appears to have forced the band to ask, "Who are we today?" Best damn rock group around is the answer A Bigger Bang can provide.

That's not an answer anyone's given about the studio version of the Stones in years. But it's the answer that one listen to A Bigger Bang demands. The passion's back in the music, the life is back in the lyrics.

At the protests later today, a worthy chant would be:

How come you're so wrong
My sweet neo-con
Where's the money gone
In the Pentagon

They've sporting their ya-yas again. It truly is "A Bigger Bang."