Beggar's Banquet
Rating: 3
   The other day I noticed that I really dig the Stones every time I hear them on the radio, yet I've got a bunch of their records that I never play. So this weekend I had a Stones marathon, and I figured out why: their albums are loaded with boring filler.
   Beggar's Banquet is by far the worst offender. Aside from two fabulous singles and a moderately hummable closer, this album is all sludgy blues or irritating faux-country ditties. I do love the singles. "Street Fighting Man" is probably the toughest sound ever built from an acoustic riff - I especially love the tight echo on the guitar. "Sympathy for the Devil" is a brilliant production - the choice to ride out most of the song with just a spare rhythm (beautiful congas) and then slip in a vicious guitar solo at the end makes it a favorite. The lyrics are idiotic (I swear I didn't have anything to do with the Kennedy assassinations - I wasn't even born) but I guess that's forgivable.
   The rest, though, is strictly scraping the barrel. "No Expectations" wants to be pretty, but it's just dull, and "Dear Doctor" gets on my nerves in the first bar and does nothing to redeem its grating melody or horrible singing (what kind of accent is that? Cornish?) "Parachute Woman" and "Stray Cat Blues" recycle old riffs uninterestingly and sound like they're being played in a coal cellar, while "Jigsaw Puzzle" and "Prodigal Son" are each inexplicable in their own way (you can't understand the words in either song, even if you can make them out in "Jigsaw Puzzle'). The choice is make slide guitar the main instrument is particularly troublesome - whoever's playing it sounds like he just started; it's all open chords with fret buzz and poor tone control.
   Unless you're a big fan of tired blues cliches, give this one a pass.
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  • From Kevin in Rocky Mount, N.C.: I read your Rolling Stones album reviews. I'll bet it was a lot of work to post all that. I disagree with your review of Beggars Banquet, though. I once said on WFIT-FM (Melbourne, FL) that this album was the best album they ever recorded (that was in 1982...I think it's STILL true). I think the Stones accurately capture the blues style they learned as young tyke Stones (Keith was a big Chick Berry fan). I ESPECIALLY like "Jigsaw Puzzle." Mick tells stories of his band mates in several songs, and this is the best of them. Try listening again...maybe you'll agree.
  • STEVE AND ABE RESPOND: Abe says, "Ad yah yah." Steve says: "Funny you should mention listening again; I'm afraid I can't. I was just weeding my record collection and threw this album on the "sell" pile. Oh, well. Thanks for writing!"

  • From Timothy R. Church: Can't believe you're so right on sometimes ("'Satisfaction', one of the greatest rock and roll songs ever, ..."), then diss Beggars' Banquet, their best album conceptually and musically. How can you dismiss "Prodigal Son" as filler? Or "Factory Girl"? You describe these tunes collectively as "tired blues cliches", and they're anything but. Where have you heard this stuff before? Not from Blind Willie McTell or Blind Blake. Not from Lightnin' or Muddy or Howlin' Wolf. Not from Sonny Boy I or II, nor from the great Robert Johnson. Not from any of the Kings. Now, you may be tired of the derivative stuff since then, because every garage band that's made it big since this album has at some time tried to emulate the sound on this album. But that's not the Stones' fault, is it?
    Anyway, I enjoy reading your stuff. Thanks for the listen.
  • STEVE AND ABE RESPOND: Abe says, "Bubble." Steve says: "I stand corrected. Not being much of a blues connoisseur, I just assumed the Stones were using old ideas, not creating them. That said, I still don't find them all that interesting. Give me "Beast of Burden" any day. Thanks for writing!"

  • From David Leonard: After reading your review of Beggar's Banquet, and skimming your other stuff, it is clear that you only go for "Hits." You should sell your albums and order compilations off the TV. "Satisfaction" the greatest rock song ever? Maybe, but it's been said a million times. And every non-musician lay-person I know loves “Beast of Burden”.
    “Stray Cat Blues” is the rawest rock song ever, and defines what rock & roll should be.
  • STEVE AND ABE RESPOND: Abe says, "More cinnamon toast." Steve says: "I think you mean that as an insult, but I'll tell you, one of my favorite records is a five-LP set of Motown #1 hits. TV compilations are great! Thanks for writing!"

    Let It Bleed
    Rating: 5
       This is better, but mostly because they tread a little farther out from the blues. "Love in Vain" and "You Got the Silver" cover old ground tediously, though, and "Midnight Rambler" might have been a sprightly bit of filler at half its length but really bogs down around the 4:30 mark. The weird accent problem crops up again in "Let It Bleed", ruining an otherwise decent number with much-improved slide guitar work.
       The production is much more effective, too, with some depth and atmosphere replacing the murk. "Monkey Man" rides a busy bass line augmented with some well-reverbed guitars to a satisfying climax, and "Gimmie Shelter" (more famous than it is good) is all about the production - it's basically a three-note riff with piles of phasing and a madly echoed female backing vocal providing the depth missing in the melody.
       "Live With Me" is super-clean with a terrific bass tone playing an interesting riff, although the horn arrangement sounds rushed. Everything works well on "You Can't Always Get What You Want" - although the credits list gives the impression that it will be a clogged-artery production, the arranging choices, such as having everything but the piano and organ drop out in the chorus, and then slowly building in the end, provides lots of tiny moments of epiphany and a rapturous coda - I love the idea of a Bach choir and a gospel trio combining their styles.
       A few nice moments, but again lots of dreary time between the high points.
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    Sticky Fingers
    Rating: 6
       Let me say that when Keith Richard is on, he's ON. The man comes up with riffs that are so unusual in tone, structure, and timing, that they're clearly works of genius. "Brown Sugar" is one of those, and the rest of the band does a terrific job fleshing it out with solid rhythms, that funky lead riff, and of course, that chorus (it definitely makes baking with the wife a lot of fun: every time one of us mentions brown sugar, the other is compelled, by pre-nuptial agreement, to sing, "how come you taste so good?"). "Bitch" is another quality riff - not so out-of-the-blue, but still exciting and quite well-designed to work with a horn section.
       Unfortunately, a lot of times he relies on hackneyed blues riffs in hopes no one will notice. "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" and "I Got the Blues" are pretty tired guitar lines, and the singing isn't impressive enough to redeem them. In addition, the goopy instrumental work on "Knocking" (particularly the sax) is almost unbearably self-indulgent. I guess "Sister Morphine" and "Sway" express important emotions to Mick, but sincerity doesn't make up for dull tunes and lethargic rhythms. "Dead Flowers" moves along nicely, but again, the bizarro accents - did we accidentally stumble into a Rich Little record here?
       That leaves two quality ballads - "Wild Horses" is beautifully written, but Mick seems to be needing to burp the whole take (I love this song when performed by other singers), and "Moonlight Mile" has a terrific verse structure, with the drums pumping up the vocal rhythms, and uses a dramatic but not melodramatic string arrangement to great effect.
       So, four great songs and lots of baloney. That should rank it lower than Let It Bleed, but it doesn't because the great songs are really great.
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    Exile on Main Street
    Rating: 7
    Squirm factor: 3
       So, this album is all filler, right? So why is it my favorite? Call it one of those cosmic imponderables, but I think it has to do with the fact that almost everything on here is swift, short, and tuneful.
       The uniquely Keith riffs are gone (save on "Rocks Off" and "Happy") so that the band mostly blasts through various combinations of standard rock chord progressions. Only in a couple cases does that lead to trouble ("Ventilator Blues" and "Turd on the Run" - having them back to back followed by "Just Want to See His Face", which is not an actual song but merely an excuse to see how much reverb you can put on a tambourine before the mixing board explodes, makes side three eminently skippable); the rest of the time, the group makes up for it with some energetic tunes and Mick's best vocals ever. For once, he's not going for some bizarre accent or proving how "bluesy" he can be - he's just delivering the songs with the appropriate tune and energy, and it's surprising how much I like his voice when he's just singing.
       The band plays tightly throughout (and Bobby Keys makes up for ruining "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" with a killer solo on "Rip This Joint") and moments of bliss abound. I love the lead licks on "Tumbling Dice", the drumming in the chorus of "Loving Cup", the little squeaking noise in "Stop Breaking Down."
       You'll hear lots of critics talk about the murky sound on this record, but it's not any worse than on their others - it's just that the combination of the band playing with all stops out and burying Mick's vocals a little in the mix makes the words hard to understand. That's fine with me, I just dig the groove. This is the one record where the Stones live up to their reputation as great rockers. You can't miss with this one if you like that famous Stones vibe from their big hits - even though it doesn't contain many of them, all the songs have the sound.
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    Hot Rocks, 1964-1971
    Rating: 7
    Squirm factor: 5
       For a greatest hits record from one of the bigger bands in history, this starts out badly, with the brutal amateurism of "Time is On My Side", "Heart of Stone" and "Play with Fire." God, these guys are bad! Listen to the faltering rhythm, the missed licks, the crude singing. A lot of musicians say they were inspired by the Beatles' early U.S. shows, but I'm surprised a lot more didn't listen to the Stones and say, "Hey, anybody can play this shit." And the lyrics to "Play with Fire" are apparently intended as some sort of scathing put-down, but they include these lines: "Now she gets her kicks in Stepney, not in Knightsbridge anymore". Spare me the cruelty!
       It then takes a huge turn upward with "Satisfaction", one of the greatest rock and roll songs ever, then sinks back with "As Tears Go By", an amazingly insipid number, then right back to the heights of inspiration with "Get Off My Cloud", powered by a fantastic drum line and an entirely groovy verse melody. Consistency was not their strong point.
       Sides two and three are just fabulous, though, with one after another hit single that either rocks furiously or grooves melodically or both. My faves are "Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown" (which for a long time I thought was about "ceiling wax" because I wasn't familiar with the notion of "sealing wax"), "Under My Thumb" (hate the lyrics, love the marimba), and "Let's Spend the Night Together" with its swinging piano and shrewdly deployed billyclubs (the story is that as the bobbies came in to raid the studio for drugs, the producer deployed them to beat out the middle section's rhythm with nightsticks while the stash was flushed.) "Honky Tonk Women" has a lovely cowbell but an underdeveloped riff.
       The presence of "Midnight Rambler" is odd, as it was neither an outstanding album track nor a big hit. It's a live version that goes on a couple extra minutes, as well. You could fit in three of the hit singles they left off this collection (how about "She's a Rainbow", "I Wanna Be Your Man" and "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow"?) in place of this nine-minute track. The album goes out with a flourish, though: it's hard to beat "You Can't Always Get What You Want", "Brown Sugar" and "Wild Horses."
       Given the Stones' career, I'd say there's a lot better compilation to be made, but this is definitely a place to collect some of the bigger hits, and it's mostly all you'll need.
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  • From Zach Smith: This is the only RS album I own, because as much as I hate compilations, I hate all the filler on RS albums. Great album though. I think as George S. points out in his reviews, the Stones' early songs are underrated. “Play with Fire” and “Heart of Stone” may be crude, but you just have to feel the power of "Time is on My Side". Of course, I love “Satisfaction” and “Nervous Breakdown”. Hey guess what... In Scooped, Pete Townshend says he ripped off “Breakdown”'s riff on “Substitute”. I can't see it. “Tears Go By” is an obvious "Yesterday" ripoff. Thanks again.
  • STEVE AND ABE RESPOND: Abe says, "Bubububu [running his finger over his lips]." Steve says: "What's to hate about compilations? You get all the great songs and leave out the filler. The 'I'm only interested in original albums' attitude seems to be confusing rock music with novels. Yes, it would be terrible to read a novelist's fifteen best chapters in isolation. But rock music is written and recorded one song at a time, and each song stands on its own as an artistic statement. Therefore collecting the best of them is a perfectly viable idea, and for the casual fan, a great savings of time and money. Thanks for writing!"

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