Wednesday, 18 December 2019

The Rolling Stones - The post-1981 albums (1981-2016)



The very long "latter period" of The Rolling Stones' career, one initially wracked with internal strife, is one that many feel just does not cut the mustard, and they are probably right, but if you like The Stones, you like The Stones. You will get something out of all the albums. I know I do. Contained within this batch, however, is most people's "worst Stones album ever" in 1986's Dirty Work.

The albums covered here are:-

Undercover (1983)
Dirty Work (1986)
Steel Wheels (1989)
Voodoo Lounge (1994)
Bridges To Babylon (1997)
A Bigger Bang (2005)
and Blue And Lonesome (2016)

Scroll down to read the reviews chronologically.

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UNDERCOVER (1983)

1. Undercover Of The Night
2. She Was Hot
3. Tie You Up (The Pain Of Love)
4. Wanna Hold You
5. Feel On Baby
6. Too Much Blood
7. Pretty Beat Up
8. Too Tough
9. All The Way Down
10. It Must Be Hell     

This is so much an album of its era. The 1980s saw albums awash with synthesisers, synth drums and keyboard riffs. How this affected a band so intrinsically linked to guitar riffs is obvious here, not particularly well. However, the fact that the band tried to move with the times has to be respected, even though, at times, the trademark Stones sound is buried beneath synthesisers and automatic drums. If you have Charlie Watts, why use programmed drums? Nevertheless, some interesting rhythmic experiments can be found on the barnstorming title track, Too Much BloodTie You Up and Feel On Baby. The album's last four tracks also see a partial restoration of something of the Stones sound fans had come to expect. In many ways it is a very similar album to Emotional Rescue, but slightly better due to the lack of any "embarrassing" tracks where The Stones forget their age. Not really anything truly wonderful on here, but no true duffers either.

As with 1980's Emotional Rescue, this album has to be viewed in the context of when it was recorded. The cracks between Jagger and Richards that were beginning to show three years earlier are even more apparent here. It is pretty obvious whose tracks are whose.                                       
Undercover Of The Night was a deserved hit single. Despite containing much of the dreaded synth drum sound, there are still some killer Stones riffs in this (relatively) rare political song. The song rocks from beginning to end and, if it has to bow to 80s production trends, it does so magnificently, still sounding good today. "the smell of sex, the smell of rubber" sets a tone for the rest of the album, lyrically. She Was Hot is an excellent rocker, underpinned by some boogie-woogie piano and some classic guitar work. Where the song is let a bit by a slightly lazy vocal in places it makes up for in energy and attack. Jagger's obsession with sex is expressed in many of this album's songs in language that is violent, uncaring and dominating. Tie You Up (The Pain Of Love) was maybe typical of the emotional detachment of the "me" generation 1980s. This is a mid-pace, insistent rocker - lyrically menacing and back by some grinding guitar and metronomic "proper" drums. One of the best on the album.

 

Wanna Hold You was the now seemingly-obligatory Keith-on-vocal track. Average chugger in the usual Keith style. Inoffensive but unremarkable. Just as obligatory as a Keith track would also seem to be a Keith-influenced reggae track. Feel On Baby was it here. Many critics have slated the inauthenticity of this track, but, as a reggae fan myself, I have to say it sounds pretty real to me, as far as white reggae goes. No doubt helped by the fact that Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare are on drums and bass. Not a bad song at all.

On the somewhat bizarre Too Much Blood Mick Jagger goes all horror film and rap on this odd track. A funky horn-dominated riff, similar to those used by David Bowie in his Let's Dance and Tonight albums from the same period eases off on two occasions to hear Jagger rapping firstly about a cannibalistic murder that took place in Japan and then asking his audience if they have seen the movie Texas Chain Saw Massacre - "'Orrible wasn't it?" he leers in his best "mockney". Pretty Beat Up was apparently more of a Ronnie Wood track, this was only added at the last minute. It is pretty standard stuff, a solid bluesy upbeat rhythm lifted by an excellent tenor saxophone part and a more typical Jagger vocal. Too Tough saw a trademark Stones riff opens this, one of the album's better tracks with some more dodgy sex-influenced lyrics about a woman whose demands for rough sex show her to be "too tough" even for Mick. A vocal that sounds like he means it, though.

 

All The Way Down had a title that leaves nothing to the imagination. Jagger reminisces about a girl he knew when he was twenty-one who "went all the way down". Marianne Faithfull? Musically, it is formulaic Stones - solid, guitar based one pace rock and trustworthy, unspectacular drums. It Must Be Hell saw another classic riff to introduce this quality track. It was used on Exile's Soul Survivor and also on Michael Jackson's Black Or White. A driving, urgent groove to this one. Good vocal too.



** A rarity that doesn't show up very often is the b side to She Was HotI Think I’m Going Mad, which is an attractive, mid-pace, very Jagger in the eighties-style number, loaded with saxophone and a great bass line too. It is actually a really good track that would have enhanced the album.

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DIRTY WORK (1986)

1. One Hit (To The Body)
2. Fight
3. Harlem Shuffle
4. Hold Back
5. Too Rude
6. Winning Ugly
7. Back To Zero
8. Dirty Work
9. Had It With You
10. Sleep Tonight    

Widely considered by most to be the worst Rolling Stones album, by far. It had a lot going against it - a fractured band with its main protagonists pretty much functioning independently of each other, even mild-tempered Charlie Watts falling out with Jagger, a musical trend at the time of synthesisers dominating everything and, yes, a bloody awful cover.

Let me try and "accentuate the positives" with this review. It is had too much negativity over the years, probably correctly, but oh well, here goes.                                 

One Hit To The Body is a rousing, impressive opener employing that old acoustic/electric guitar riff intro again and some impressive guests like Led Zeppelin's Jimmy PageBobby WomackPatti Scialfa and Kirsty McColl. It is as good as anything on Emotional Rescue or Undercover to be fair. Fight is a bit more of a Stones-by-numbers track with Ronnie Wood on bass (unusually), it is lyrically bland but has a killer riff opening and Harlem Shuffle is a totally convincing cover of Bob & Earl's 60s soul hit. Excellent vocal and general sound on this. Nothing wrong with it at all.

  

Hold Back is a pounding drum attack rock number and is redeemed by another energetic Jagger vocal, as indeed is Winning Ugly, whose synthesiser riff is also rescued by a funky bass and drum underpin taken, in my view, from Don Covay's Northern Soul number, It's Better To Have (And Don't Need). Strangely, Covay appears on this album on backing vocals on One Hit and Sleep Tonight. Maybe he had some input? Jagger also attacks this enthusiastically, going falsetto in places again. Keith Richards' obligatory reggae number, Too Rude, is enjoyable too. I always like these. Jimmy Cliff appears on backing vocals.

Back To Zero has a delicious funky intro and, yet again a good Jagger vocal. The guitar and drums are great on this and, yes, it is a good track. Hints of dub reggae in its skanking guitars in places too. This would have sounded great on Undercover, with its political undertones about the world's impending meltdown. Ronnie Wood's bass on this, again, is impressive. You know, Im enjoying this re-listen quite a lot... This is possibly the best track on the album.

 

Dirty Work is pretty much a typical mid 80s Stones cut. It is ok, but that's about it. If you like The Stones you can listen to it and there are good parts, the chorus is catchy. A lot of people have moaned about the 80s drum sound on tracks like this, and, although it is a loud attack, at least they are proper drums and not a drum machine. Had It With You features Ronnie Wood on saxophone, would you believe, but a lazy vocal and general unremarkableness pervades. A blues-inflluenced "bridge" sounds pretty terrible, to be brutally honest. Probably the album's low point. Richards' affecting low-key ballad Sleep Tonight finishes things. Good old Ronnie is now, unbelievably, on drums, not very impressively, it has to be said and Keith's vocal is unsurprisingly laconic.

Yes, it probably is their worst album, but, as a Stones fan, I will try to derive something from it and the occasional forty minutes listening to it every few years is enjoyable enough.



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STEEL WHEELS (1989)

1. Sad Sad Sad
2. Mixed Emotions
3. Terrifying
4. Hold On To Your Hat
5. Hearts For Sale
6. Blinded By Love
7. Rock And A Hard Place
8. Can't Be Seen
9. Almost Hear You Sigh
10. Continental Drift
11. Break The Spell
12. Slipping Away  

Along with 1986's Dirty Work, it is easy to dismiss this album as "execrable", as many, many journalists and fans have done over the subsequent years. Yes, it is has a synthesiser presence, as did work from many artists in the mid/late eighties, but, in my opinion, it is nowhere near as bad an album as so many have considered it to be. It is actually far superior to Dirty Work.

The late eighties were, admittedly a dreadful, barren period for music, and this album suffers some of the drawbacks of coming from that era, but there is still some solid Stones rock on here.                                      

Sad Sad Sad is an excellent, riffy opener, while Mixed Emotions is a captivating rocker, some great backing riffs and, on the 2009 remaster, a big, throbbing bass sound. Conspiracy theorists claim the title is a subtle play on "Mick's demotion". Yeah, of course it is. Not. I love the line in Sad Sad Sad of "the elephant's in the bedroom, throwing all his weight about", though. Jagger is on revitalised vocal from on these tracks. He sounds totally rejuvenated.

 

Terrifying has another killer bass line and a hypnotic intoxicating beat with one of those sleazy, menacing Jagger vocals, going on about "strange, strange desire...". Some nice brass at the end of it and some rhythmic drums from Charlie WattsHold On To Your Hat is a breakneck, slightly punky rocker that sounds a bit like it should have been on Dirty WorkHearts For Sale is a Jagger vocal-dominated mid-pace, intuitive rocker that I haven't heard for ages and I am quite enjoying discovering it again. Some excellent guitar and harmonica interplay comes in near the end. You know, this really isn't too bad an album.

A lilting, rich bass and fetching percussion introduce another Jagger, Latin/Elizabethan-style groove of a smoocher in Blinded By Love, with him going all snake hips as he gavottes to it, no doubt. There are endearing country/acoustic twinges to the song too. One of the better, undiscovered tracks from the album. Songs like these are never played live, which is a shame. It is current trend, utilised by Bruce Springsteen a lot, to play old albums in their entirety. I reckon it would be good to hear The Stones do so with albums like this. A typical Stones grinding riff and rubber band bass give us the rocking Rock And A Hard Place. This was a single and a good one it was too. Keith RichardsCan't Be Seen is a appealing, upbeat Keith song, it would have sounded great on Talk Is Cheap, but it is ok here and considerably ballsier than some of his more wheezing ballads that cropped up with increasing regularity on latter-day Stones albums.

Almost Hear You Sigh was a leftover from Richards' Talk Is Cheap sessions, but here  is sung, and convincingly too, by Jagger. It does beg the question that all those "Keith songs" would have been better served by Jagger's vocals. Certainly the latter era ones. Not so much the earlier I Got The Silver blues ones. The song features some lovely acoustic guitar in the middle, Ronnie Wood, I think.

  

Continental Drift is the big surprise on the album - a lengthy song, with instrumental experimentation not heard in The Stones' material for many a year. Moroccan sub-Saharan musicians are used on the track, in true Brian Jones-inspired style. Many have said, rightly, that The Stones would have done a lot more stuff like this, had Jones lived. Best track on the album by a mile. The repeated line "love comes at the speed of light" would not have sounded out of place on Satanic MajestiesBreak The Spell is another revelatory track - a sort of grinding, upbeat, jazzy almost rockabilly meets the blues sort of thing - if that makes any sense whatsoever.  Either way, it is some speeded-up fun. Then we end, of course, with one of those Richards songs I mentioned earlier. Actually, despite that, I quite like Slipping Away. It has a gentle tenderness to it. All in all, a much better, more enjoyable album than it is ever given credit for being.



** The b side to Mixed Emotions was a real gem, the copper-bottomed Stones blues of Fancy Man Blues. A great "rarity" of a track. Jagger's vocal is impressive as is the piano. The b side to Terrifying was Wish I'd Never Met You. It is another solid, chunky blues featuring some more excellent piano and guitar. Imagine if both these tracks had been on the album, I reckon it would have been received far more favourably.

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VOODOO LOUNGE (1994)

1. Love Is Strong
2. You Got Me Rocking
3. Sparks Will Fly
4. The Worst
5. New Faces
6. Moon Is Up
7. Out Of Tears
8. I Go Wild
9. Brand New Car
10. Suck On The Jugular
11. Sweethearts Together
12. Blinded By Rainbows
13. Thru And Thru
14. Baby Break It Down
15. Mean Disposition   

It is an unfortunately popular cliche to condemn this album, comparing it to Let It Bleed or Exile On Main Street and saying that it is one of the worst Rolling Stones albums. I have to say I disagree. I think it is a reasonable album. Comparisons with their outstanding past work are actually pretty pointless. Just listen to this album and decide whether it rocks or to. In my view, it does.                                          

It had been five years since Steel Wheels, their previous album and the first two lead off tracks are seriously powerful. A great return from The Stones. Love Is Strong is a rousing bluesy, leery rocker and You Got Me Rocking is a riffy absolute corker. It has been a great early track in their live set ever since, and rightly so. Jagger's voice is on characterful top form and Keith Richards' riffage is as fresh and invigorating as ever. A great track. Sparks Will Fly has received a fair amount of opprobrium over the years for its relatively "slack" sexually oriented lyrics. Personally, I haven't got a problem with it. It's The Rolling Stones. I'm glad to hear they are still naughty boys! Also, its a copper-bottomed rocker. Keith's laid-back, sadly yearning The Worst is a lovely track actually, although his voice is sounding older and older. New Faces sees a return to that Elizabethan vibe that the band used in the sixties on the melodic keyboard refrain and Jagger's vocal is excellent. I love this track.

 

Moon Is Up is a menacing, grinding, bassy mid-paced rocker, while Out Of Tears has another great hook and convincing vocal. I Go Wild ploughs the same furrow as Sparks Will Fly, although is not quite as risqué. Again, it has a singalong chorus, something that is common to a lot of the songs on the album. One problem with albums after the year 1990 or around there, is that the age of the CD meant that bands were filling them up with 75 minutes' worth of music, so, on occasions, they included some filler and can go on a bit too long. On this album, probably the bluesy Brand New Car and the staccato, funky Suck On The Jugular, while I like both of them, I feel the album would not suffer if they were not there. Similarly, Sweethearts Together is a plaintive Jagger love song, but there are better tracks on the album.

Blinded By Rainbows is another with a captivating hook, and a great chorus and Richards' Thru And Thru is just great - a slow burner with a superb, powerful rock ending. One of Richards' best songs for a while. Baby Break It Down is a bit more average, but Mean Disposition is a fantastic rocker to end the album with. Although I feel the album is maybe few tracks too long, I can honestly say that I like all the tracks on there. When I say there is not a real duff track on it, in my opinion, I actually mean it. I know many, many people will not agree and I fully understand why, but, for me it is a good album, that I enjoy listening to. Of course, it isn't as good as some of those earlier albums, but very few albums are.

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BRIDGES TO BABYLON (1987)

1. Flip The Switch
2. Anybody Seen My Baby
3. Low Down
4. Already Over Me
5. Gunface
6. You Don't Have To Mean It
7. Out Of Control
8. Saint Of Me
9. Might As Well Get Juiced
10. Always Suffering
11. Too Tight
12. Thief In The Night
13. How Can I Stop      

On this album, in contrast to Voodoo Lounge, which had seen The Stones revisit sounds from their previous two decades, they decided to utilise a few contemporary musicians and production assistants. They used tape loops, samples, drum enhancement and the like. Quite why you need drum enhancement when you have Charlie Watts is unclear. It is still a rock-ish album but these differences make it a slightly different album to listen to, as opposed to more of the same. For some, though, it seemed The Stones couldn't win - the same style would have brought accusations of "the same old formula", whereas dabbling in contemporary sounds had people saying "why don't they just stick to what they know best?". Either way, it is a pleasurable listen, although like Voodoo Lounge and A Bigger Bang it is probably one or two tracks too long. There is a big, thumping, full bass sound to the album which is good to hear, although at times the cymbal sound is a bit tinny, notably on Low Down. It is overridden by the full bass though.                                

Flip The Switch is a storming, drum-driven rocker to open with, featuring a great "proper" drum intro and a superb Keith Richards riff. It really gets the album off to a rousing start. There are also some soulful, atmospheric and brooding numbers, like the shuffling, percussive Anybody Seen My Baby, with its Fingerprint File-style vocal, great bass and killer chorus and the addictive Saint Of Me, both of which have a really mysterious feel to them and great vocals from Jagger. Low Down is archetypal riffy, slow burning Stones rock. Already Over Me is one of those laid-back Jagger rock ballads he does so well. As with most of the songs on here, it has an instant refrain.

  

Gunface is a rumbling, slightly menacing, industrial number while Out Of Control has a superb rock hook but also a rhythmic, contemporary tinge to the sound. All muddy and mysterious. Some great blues harmonica on it too along with some funky keyboards. One of the album's best tracks. Keith Richards' horn-driven reggae on You Don't Have To Mean It is as convincing a piece of upbeat white reggae as you will find. The U2-esque Might As Well Get Juiced is bluesy, intense and experimental, with all sorts of weird electronic noises an a muffled, distant Jagger vocal.

Always Suffering is a slightly country-tinged Jagger slowie. Too Tight is the one real throwaway on the album, although its an ok upbeat rocker, just remarkable. Richards' two final slow, melodic cuts are excellent too - the bluesy Thief In The Night, and the tender How Can I Stop with the slightly South African-influenced saxophone bit at the end.

It is common to criticise this, along with all the other Stones albums from Steel Wheels onwards. I don't though. I like all of them.



** A non-album track from this era was Anyway You Look At It, the b side of Saint Of Me. It is a slow-paced, strings and acoustic Keith Richards song, with the usual sleepy feel and croaky vocals that his songs invariably have.

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A BIGGER BANG (2005)

1. Rough Justice
2. Let Me Down Slow
3. It Won't Take Long
4. Rain Fall Down
5. Streets Of Love
6. Back Of My Hand
7. She Saw Me Coming
8. Biggest Mistake
9. This Place Is Empty
10. Oh No Not You Again
11. Dangerous Beauty
12. Laugh, I Nearly Died
13. Sweet Neo-Con
14. Look What The Cat Dragged In
15. Driving Too Fast
16. Infamy  

While 1994's Voodoo Lounge and 1997's Bridges To Babylon were, somewhat unfairly, (particularly in the case of the former) panned by critics, this one, nearly ten years later, was given the cliche-ridden "return to form" praise. Why was this? Maybe it was the considerably stripped down, back to basics backing, no horns or saxophones, just organ and piano plus the core of The Stones. Also, the fact it included a blues track for the first time in years caused many people to go a bit over the top in their "back to their roots" panegyrics.

Just as the previous two album had been, this was, in the age of the CD, an album that was several tracks too long. Fifteen or sixteen tracks now seemed to be the average for an album, using up the full 78 minutes available. To be honest, it was too much for me and all these three albums are difficult to listen to all the way through. Twelve tracks would be much more preferable.   

  

Anyway, all that said, there are still some good tracks on here, although the sound is unfortunately typical of the year it was released and the others immediately either side of it in that the album's production is overloud and clashing. The sonic bombast tends to override some of the subtleties that earlier recordings possess. As Keith would say, "on with the show" - the first six tracks are of a high standard. Rough Justice is a vibrant rocker with some leery Jagger vocals, Let Me Down Slow and It Won't Take Long have grinding, bluesy aspects to them, while Rain Fall Down is a typical Jagger, slowish, atmospheric number. It is ever so slightly disco-ish. Streets Of Love continues in that vein, even more appealingly, with an addictive chorus "ahh, ah ahhh.." hook. Possibly the best track on the album. Then comes the blues. Back Of My Hand is indeed one of The Stones' finest copper-bottomed blues  rockers for many a year, but it doesn't make the whole album. Indeed, it is pretty much on its own, compared to the rest. No need to exaggerate the importance of one track.

Then we go into a bit of a rut, with some run-of-the mill tracks that are a bit indistinguishable from each other, to be honest. Biggest Mistake is a yearning number, full of vocal Jaggerisms, however, and Dangerous Beauty has a sort of Goats' Head Soup appeal. Sweet Neo-Con is, though, an embarrassment, even though I agree with the political sentiments. It has no place here, really. Look What The Cat Dragged In should probably have remained on the cutting room floor, too. However, Oh No Not You Again rocks hard and convincingly.

Keith Richards' tracks are both, as we have come to expect - laid-back to the extent of being almost comatose, with a croaking vocal. Of the two, Infamy has a slightly more upbeat catchiness that This Place Is Empty doesn't have, although the latter is pleasant enough.

Of these three latter-day Stones albums, Voodoo Lounge is by far my favourite and gets played the most. I know that is a contrary view to most, but there you go.



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BLUE AND LONESOME (2016)
 

1. Just Your Fool
2. Commit A Crime
3. Blue And Lonesome
4. All Of Your Love
5. I Gotta Go
6. Everybody Knows About My Good Thing
7. Ride 'Em On Down
8. Hate To See You Go
9. Hoo Doo Blues
10. Little Rain
11. Just Like I Treat You
12. I Can't Quit You Baby    

Apparently recorded very quickly, in an "almost live" studio setting, in order to give the album a raw feel, this was the long-waited Rolling Stones album of Chicago blues covers.                                     

Just Your Fool kicks the album off in a lively fashion, full of blue riffs, blues harp, barroom piano and a general all round rollicking feel. The sound is a tiny bit dense and muffled, though, throughout the alum. Maybe that was the intention, giving it that authentic blues sound, or maybe trying to replicate The Stones' sixties blues covers in its sound. Commit A Crime is a big, bassy thumper of a number. It is clear that The Stones are playing here for the sheer, unfettered enjoyment of it. Mick Jagger's vocal on this one, and indeed on all of them, is excellent, sounding half his venerable age. His blues harp (harmonica) is already sounding the dominant accoutrement to the album. Little Walter's Blue And Lonesome is solidly powerful, again the sound is a little indistinct, but I am sure by now it is deliberate. All the tracks are relatively short. This is not an album for drawn out Midnight Rambler-style soloing, it would seem. All Of Your Love has a copper-bottomed blues riff, killer piano and another peerless vocal. If I didn't know better I would swear they put a hissy background on this track to make it sound more genuine. Actually, I'm sure they did. It's 2016, no need for any hiss.

  

I Gotta Go starts with some wonderful harp from Jagger. The sound, again, is almost mono, but a dull mono at that. In fact some of their original sixties mono blues covers actually sound much better. It is not a huge criticism, however, this material is still smokin' hot. Everybody Knows About My Good Thing has a superb riff played by Eric Clapton. It is so good to hear these two giants of sixties UK blues playing together so well, all these years later. Ride 'Em On Down is an upbeat rocking blues, one of the liveliest on the album so far. Hate To See You Go has that riff that seems to have appeared in a thousand blues songs. Play it - you'll know the one I mean.


Hoo Doo Blues is a menacing, down 'n' dirty grinder of a number. It is maybe the most authentic-sounding of all of them. Little Rain is a slow, powerful but mournful blues. Just Like I Treat You is a frantic blues rocker. Jagger sounds great on this one. Eric Clapton joins the boys again for a searing solo on I Can't Quit You Baby which has a great "live" feel to it. In conclusion, you would have thought this album has Keith Richards' stamp all over it. Funnily enough, it is Jagger who dominates the whole thing. He seems to be revelling in it.

Despite the admittedly less than perfect sound (to my taste) this is still a highly enjoyable, pure album  from a band who burst on to the scene, and into our lives, playing the blues. If this is to be their last studio album, then they went out playing the blues. As it should be.



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