Monday, 15 May 2017
The Rolling Stones "Voodoo Lounge" (1994)
Love Is Strong/You Got Me Rocking/Sparks Will Fly/The Worst/New Faces/Moon Is Up/Out Of Tears/I Go Wild/Brand New Car/Sweethearts Together/Suck On The Jugular/Blinded By Rainbows/Baby Break It Down/Thru and Thru/Mean Disposition
'Time's not standing still, so stop looking through those tinted glasses...'
The title evokes the danger of 'Sympathy For The Devil'. The cover art of an alien-looking doodle in a yellow jumpsuit suggested that The Rolling Stones were finally going to make good on the primitivism caveman vibe that Andrew Loog Oldham's publicity brain created for the early Stones. The song titles all feel like they come with exclamation marks even when they don't ('Love Is Strong!' 'Sparks Will Fly!' 'Moon Is Up!' 'Brand New Car! 'Mean Disposition!') suggesting a leaner, meaner Rolling Stones in the wake of Bill Wyman's departure and (officially at least) the reduction of the band to a quartet for the first time in their career. The ever-changing Rolling Stones tongue logo now comes with added spikes, suggesting heavy metal or punk. As it happens 'Voodoo Lounge' is none of these things. Instead it's arguably the first real middle-aged Rolling Stones record, the first point at which they have to prove nothing except their longevity and on which they become an institution rather than the rebels trying to knock it down (which had already been the view of many music-buyers for a decade but becomes wider common knowledge from around this point). The Stones aren't leaner or meaner or anywhere near punk or heavy metal but slowing down, relying on their heritage more than ever before after one last chance to write 'weird' music on the superlative comeback 'Steel Wheels'. The songs are actually (by Stones standards) thought out, polished story-songs where for the first time in aeons the lyrics are (almost) as important as the riff. The closest they get to Voodoo is (Keith's ballad 'Thru and Thru' aside) is stealing the riff from Phil Spector's 'Voo doo Ron Ron'. That caveman doodle is by anime artist Mark Norton, better known for his fantasy work of dragons, sorceresses and weird cyborg hybrids who look not unlike punk versions of an anaemic David Cameron. And the title? Though it roars like a lion it's actually named after a stray cat Keith Richards adopted during his stay in Barbados trying to write songs with Mick. Learning of the cat's rough past which must have claimed at least eight of his nine lives and celebrating the island's vibe of 'voodoo', Keith took the cat's presence as a 'sign' and invited him into his chalet, dubbing the hall he slept in 'Voodoo's Lounge'. A cat outsider who'd been through hell invited into palatial surroundings after a life long lived: that's the 'real' vibe of this album, not the dancing demonic skeletons of the CD booklet.
Whether that's a good or a bad thing depends on what you want and expect from the Rolling Stones thirty-two years into a career nobody expected to last six months. The music critics were all over this album for playing it too 'safe', for not exploring any new ground and for the band being so badly out of touch with any music new bands were making around this time. Admittedly a 'Britpop' style Stones album would have been and might have contributed to a whole new darker London 'spin-off sound' the way the Stones bounced off the original impact of The Beatles/Oasis. But when you take in that any of these new crop of bands included the dreaded Spice Girls and that The Rolling Stones had sounded stupid most of the time during the 1980s when they insisted on still being young and trendy and suddenly that doesn't seem such a bad idea. Mick Jagger, for one, resented the fact that the band were being 'steered' back towards their illustrious past by producer Don Was (with Keith's support) and a few extra edgy songs would have been a nice reminder of just how brave and daring the Stones could be when they wanted to be (another 'Devil' or even another 'Undercover' would have given this album an extra frisson of danger and brought many of the critics and fans back alongside). But the Stones were in a precarious position when they made this album and in context going back to their strengths seems like a wise idea: we're still only a few years on from 'World War III' in which Mick and Keith very nearly ate each other for breakfast - fans were still holding their breath to see if the pair could make it through a second elongated writing session without killing each other. Both Glimmer Twins had made halfway-decent solo records for the first time, with Mick's 'Primitive Cool' and Keith's 'Main Offender' proving that while they might have needed each to be great they could at least be good solo acts. Sales for live album 'Flashpoint' had been, by Stones standards, disappointing (which is what happens when you release your fifth official live album in twenty-nine years and choose to put it out with *that* ugly cover, but never mind). And most of all, Bill is missing.
Ignored for much of the band's career and ridiculed for the rest of it, many fans only took note of Bill once he started being the paparazzi's favourite Stone in the 1980s thanks to his (depending how you read it) sweet innocent and pure/downright evil romance with teenager Mandy Smith, not quite a third of Bill's age when they started seeing each other (it's worth pointing out here that, unlike every other book that castigates Bill as the villain, nobody in this story really got hurt - both still speak fondly of their time together, Mandy calling Bill a 'gentleman' which will be a surprise to anyone who still thinks of the Stones as the anti-christ and the pair ended it when she found someone else; what the papers didn't know - or they'd have had even more of a field-day, was that Bill's son Stephen was at the same time sleeping with Mandy's mum Patsy). However Bill was one of the leading bass player's of his day and perfect for the Stones' sound, offering up a nonchalant groove that along with Charlie's drums helped nail the band's typical groove and which allowed Mick to fly and tethered Keith even more to Earth. Bill had been unhappy for a while and had only really hung around until he had enough money from the most lucrative Stones tour of them all (the 1989-1991 'Urban Jungle' tour) and enough other irons in the fire to keep him busy (his book 'Stone Alone' had just been published, with another about his hobby of meta-detecting on the way, plus early gigs for the Bill Wyman Rhythm Kings and the Wyman-owned 'Sticky Fingers' cafe in London decorated with Stones memorabilia, though sadly no 'tongue' or 'Brown Sugar' on the menu - you can't always get what you want). The others assumed Bill was joking and assumed he's reconvene when the Stones did in 1993 - instead the band had to put out a rather surly press release announcing that the bass player had left and they were looking for a replacement, even though Bill had been telling the world this for two years already. The Stones never quite sound the same again without him and while new bass player Darryl Jones (who plays on all the Stones releases from here-on in) is an excellent find, he's great in a quite different way to Bill and takes the Stones in a whole new direction. Darryl got the job thanks to his gigs for Miles Davis (which impressed Keith for one), but rather sweetly both Glimmer Twins decided to leave the ultimate choice up to Charlie, who never usually got a say in anything, figuring that as half of the rhythm section he deserved the final say-so. Considering that Darryl doesn't often get the job he was hired to (as the title suggests the Stones had a vague idea of turning into more of a 'groove' band) he copes very well indeed, but replacing a founding member is no easy matter and the Stones probably did best to keep as close to their old style as they could for the time being.
In perhaps the opposite problem of 'Steel Wheels' the Stones sound so much better the closer they stay to home - and more and more stupid the further they venture from it. At its best 'Voodoo Lounge' sounds like a great distillation of Stones compilations; if not quite 'TBig Hits, High Tide, Green Grass' then certainly the just-released Virgin era compilation 'Jump Back'. 'Love Is Strong' is the best Stones single in years, a rock song that's got a catchy pop chorus, a memorable blues harmonica part and Mick Jagger singing through a glass, darkly and a clever twist at the end of the song. 'Out Of Tears' is grown-up Stones, one of the most exquisite and moving ballads they ever wrote, trumping even the song it obviously compares to 'As Tears Go By' and features Mick at his most emotionally honest rather than hiding behind a character. 'New Faces' is a sweet reprise of the harpsichord last heard as long ago as 'Lady Jane'. 'Baby Break It Down' is mysterious and emotive, bringing out the best in Jagger's desperate haunted narrator desperate to have a second chance at putting things right. The bittersweet 'Blinded By Rainbows' is a rare look back over the band's collective shoulders (addressed to Bill?) that's easily the best of the band's folk-country songs. 'You Got Me Rocking' and 'I Go Wild' are the best decent no-holds-barred rocker the band have released in some time. Keith's token weepie 'Thru and Thru' belatedly adds the voodoo promise of the title. All of these songs show how great the Stones could sound when they stayed true to their principles but didn't pretend to be young and trendy but instead looked at what being a career-long rebel meant when you reached your fifties. Had the album been released like this, as a great half hour in the LP age, we'd have been talking about an even greater comeback than 'Steel Wheels'.
But this isn't the LP age but the CD age and quantity over quality is suddenly in. 'Voodoo Lounge' really really really didn't need to be an hour. Had the other half of the album been released as B-sides we'd have been rude about The Stones wanting their fans to fork out money for the privilege of owning them going through the motions over and over again on songs so dull you wonder if Bill got an advance copy. Releasing them as album tracks is even more unnecessary. 'Sparks Will Fly' is a song rejected - rejected! - from a Keith Richards solo LP that recounts a fight the guitarist had with Jerry Lee Lewis about how bad his band were playing during early meetings about making an album together (Jerry Lee might have had a point but 'The X-Pensive Winos' were still outplaying The Stones on this track). 'The Worst' is an ugly Keith Richards country ballad whose title is more of an ambition than sarcasm. 'Moon Is Up' is a lot of noisy shouting about nothing with crazy effects that make Mick sound like a robot trapped inside Charlie's drumkit. 'Brand New Car' must be the single worst and most pointless AAA car song of them all - and boy have we had some bad ones, from The Kinks to The Beach Boys (repeat offenders). 'Suck On The Jugular' shows why Mick should never, ever be allowed to think he can compete with 'contemporary' bands a quarter of his age (especially when a record like 'Voodoo Lounge' takes so long to make this music is at least five albums out of date by the time the record finally comes out; and that's me being generous - arguably Sly And The Family Stone had been doing this sort of thing for a quarter century by this time). And the closing number 'Mean Disposition' must be the weakest most anti-climactic end to a Stones album since...well 'Sleep Tonight' two albums ago as it happens, but it's a measure of how much more we were expecting from The Stones in 1994 that this weak record suddenly seemed a million years ago. What impressed most about 'Steel Wheels' was its consistency, with most songs sounding great and the few that didn't at least sounding weird and that was worth a celebration in itself after so many years of sleep-strutting. 'Voodoo Lounge' has far better songs in many ways - but also plenty of worse ones as well, a pattern that's sadly repeated for the next two over-long Stones studio sets to come too.
It's probably not a coincidence that the majority of the songs that work best have The Stones' characters as middle-aged strugglers looking back on a dangerous life well-lived and full of knocks and bruises but also a lot of wicked fun, while the songs that don't work mostly just have the band pretending to be young. There's a real emotional core to the best of this album that's rare for a band this famously misogynistic and Mick's at his best in decades when the material gives him space for this. 'Love Is Strong' features him right there on the edge and was a braver choice for a single than many people recognised at the time, playing a 'losing' character so different to his usual swaggering style. 'Blinded By Rainbows' wonders out loud whether this could be the 'last time', with a powerful lyric about aging and losing enthusiasm before finally swatting fears aside by recounting the joy the band still feel and chuckling 'I doubt it!' Even though this was a rare case of a quiet period on both Mick and Keith's (and even Ronnie's!) marital fronts, they still conjure up two of their most mature love songs about how difficult it is to keep romance alight on 'Baby Break It Down' and the exquisite 'Out Of Tears', the single best Stones song in twenty years. 'Thru and Thru' has Keith desperately waiting for a call from his girl, forgotten and on the shelf, the complete opposite of the swaggering macho males of 'Between The Buttons' era Stones. These characters are different to most Stones characters in that they actually get hurt, worry and doubt themselves and feel guilt. We've never had that on a Stones album before in quite such quantity and that alone makes 'Voodoo Lounge' a great Stones record, far more inventive and daring than anyone assumed at the time. It's the surrounding songs where the band pretend they're nineteen and out on the pull where things get silly and take attention away from the more subtle gems at the heart of this album.
Thankfully, unlike the albums before and after, this is also the one Stones album post 1960s that sounds (more or less) as if it could have been recorded in that decade, in terms of pure sound quality. Don Was isn't the most natural Stones producer, despite getting a constant gig with the band from 1989 to date, preferring effects over playing, overdubs to rawness and drums over anything else in the band it seems. But he gets the balance right for this album, more so than all the others: there are no cringe-worthy hip-hop moments, the four Stones all get time and space to prove just what they can do given half a chance (Mick's harmonica playing, only heard occasionally on recent Stones albums, is integral to this one and quite right too - the band should never have taken it out of their natural sound!) and the drum effects only happen on the 'nothing' songs where they could have added The Spice Girls and it couldn't have made the tracks any worse anyway. Those years of increasingly desperate attempts to re-create Jimmy Miller's blurry productions from the 1970s using high-definition 1980s equipment that emphasises everything are long gone and The Stones also sound as if they're a band here, even if they continued to cobble these recordings together from overdubs in many cases (you can tell when the band are playing live as that's when Charlie springs to live, such as 'Mean Disposition' which is a great recording which almost rescues a truly terrible song).
Overall, then, there's not much voodoo magic on this album and there's a lot of lounging around going on too, but there is also a lot of hard work and love and care that makes the best of this album genius and the worst of it almost palatable (which is no mean feat on songs like 'Brand New Car' and 'Suck On The Jugular'). You can tell, in many respects, that The Stones have just signed a mega-million-bucks contract with Richard Branson's imprint 'Virgin Records' as the band have never sounded more like an institution, going some way to re-creating their past and offering occasional nods as to what the kids of the day want to hear. This was arguably the first Stones project planned from the first as a multi-corporate deal including a mega tour (booked, so legend has it, before the band had even recorded a note), tie-in live album (another one, though at least 'Stripped' came with a difference) and promotional T-shirt. What goes inside the packaging is, for the first time absolutely, less important than what was outside it or the fact that product existed at all. However there are enough cynical critics who leap down of the throat of everything on these albums because they weren't being made by a band who are young with something to prove. The Stones could never be that again and had never pretended not to be interested in taking our hard-earned cash if we were stupid enough to part with it on twelve variations of the record with different tongue logos or souvenir programmes with ugly fuzzy out-of-focus shots of the band. The wonder in many ways is that the Stones still cared enough to make half a decent product sometimes and you can tell too that the band are still having fun making music and still have a lot to say - if not quite an hour's worth. If the worst of this album ends up making the best of this album sound less amazing than it should do, then remember that the Stones could have made this album all-bad and it still would have sold bucketloads with the tour pre-booked and Virgin's promotional budget behind the band. This CD is worth the price for 'Out Of Tears' alone, although unfortunately you were probably out of money given how much this disc used to cost when new and out of patience by the end of the other fourteen highly variable songs that come with it. Still, though, whoever said you can't teach an old Rolling Stone new tricks was missing the point that this band should never, ever have been encouraged to learn new tricks in the first place when they could still do the old ones so well. In other words, it's a draw and this album still gets me...half-satisfaction?
'Love Is Strong' is the old Stones - bluesy, moody and magnificent and Mick Jagger whispering in your ear like the lothario he is. The Stones sound for the first time since 'Some Girls' as if they really know what they're doing here and play with confidence and panache, with a swagger that no other band can manage. And then there's that twist (look away if you don't want to spoil it...) 'You make me hard, you make me weak' splutters Mick in his sexiest voice, dropping double entendres with every strut. And then he drops the bombshell: 'And some day baby we got to meet!' What sounds like the sexiest chat-up line this side of 'Wild Horses' turns out to be a song by a shy boy whose acting all this out in his head and couldn't possibly go up to a girl and ask her out. The hint in the song is that he knows her really well - they've clearly shared some time together since a 'stranger's glance', so it's not as if he hasn't had the chance. And there's an even more subtle hint (well, by Stones standards) that he's a stalker and has been following her around 'seedy bars', obsessed. So far the song has played it cool and cautious, with Mick's husky voice so low in the mix you're all but forced to turn the song up but then finally the song climaxes on a pained middle eight that finds him roaring with every plea, bargain and cliché he can think of: this is 'more than just a dream', it's fate and they'd surely 'make a beautiful team'. But even with all this emotion and some great huffing puffing harmonica Jagger's character is destined to remain forever a solo act. It's a powerful moment that at once sounds very Stonesy and yet not at all like their usual confident selves at all, an 'acting' job at their usual arrogance that makes this a lot more likeable than their usual unthinking selves. The whole band play great, with Darryl Jones' first recorded bass notes amongst his best as a kind of harbinger of doom, while Keith's guitar glimmers and shines and Charlie sounds as close to desperation and frustration as a drummer as controlled as he is ever can. And then there's Jagger, at the top of his game, living this song and pouring his heart out. Outtakes from the sessions reveal an even better take with a full minute-long busked ending full of yelps, cries and howls as Mick breaks down in character before the song suddenly collapses. Even when tidied up and shrunk for compensation on the album it sounds a lot more 'real' than usual. 'Voodoo Lounge' is off to a cracking start and it's surely only the changing way the record market worked in 1994 that left this first single from the album only a middle-seller.
'You Got Me Rocking' has already won points from the title which seems such an obvious Stones-ism (referring to sex, drugs and rock and roll all in one!) it's amazing they hadn't used it before. It's another strong rocker, this one dispensing with the cool and going for an all-out attack. Keith's riff is one of his better modern-day variations on 'Satisfaction' and sounds better than usual too, played with extra distortion (credited as 'mystery guitar' on the sleeve); Charlie too really swings on a song much closer to his first love of jazz than the average Stones number; while Ronnie's guitar solo is one of his best, flying cleanly and soaring Mick Taylor style where Keith's part is all jagged edges. The lyric has clearly been pasted on afterwards and runs out of things to say early, but even that has its moments as Mick throws in a whole list of metaphors about how his life has been turned upside down. Along the way he plays a butcher, a surgeon, a baseball pitcher (a sign of how American the Stones had become by 1994), a boxer, a writer, a tycoon 'drowning in debt' and even a 'hooker losing her looks' (presumably the 'candle-stick maker' was a verse that got cut!) The theme is that love can mess you up whoever you and whatever you do - every time the narrators think they've got life sussed and can live a nice quiet love in comes that feeling in their heart and they're hypnotised by another beauty. It's more of a performance than a song, but there are enough ideas and enough commitment in the band to get them through in fine rocking style.
'Sparks Will Fly' is disappointing though - cheaply because they don't. Keith wrote the song single-handed for his 'Main Offender' album and you can tell - he's missing Mick's clever and natural way with words. More surprising is how weak his central riff is - indeed there really isn't one, with Charlie offering the most melodic momentum from his tightly controlled cymbal crashes. The song is also kind of ugly, as befits a song written for such an ugly occasion. Keith was stuck how to make his album without Mick so started off by sounding off some of his friends and heroes for lots of impersonal writing sessions around his beach house. The 1950s piano legend Jerry Lee Lewis got a call and in typical rock star fashion assumed that Keith was going to collaborate on a full LP with him and he'd be the only star there. He turned up, tried to fire the house band (who were only there to jam) and Keith still didn't let on what his plans for the album really were. The pair rowed, Jerry Lee left, Keith shrugged his shoulders and wrote a song about the clash - which of course every reviewer assumed was really about him and Mick (sometimes it pays writing these reviews so long after the event giving people time to talk about them - I confess I fell in that trap too!) However it's a storm in a tea-cup by Stones standards, with the anger Keith felt while writing it long gone by the time he reaches the guitar part and Mick not really that interested in a song that only carried his name thanks to the Jagger-Richards pact that they both get credit on each other's songs regardless of who wrote them. The Stones sound incredibly bored and play very sloppily and indifferently (the tone is set by somebody dropping something - a maraca? - at the start of the recording), while the lyrics are some of the dumbest heard on any Stones song ('You better stand back, the flames are high, bells going to ring hear the alarm, better tell the fire chief to stop playing cards'). It's also very Stones to go from juvenile ('Better step on the gas!') to stupid ('Gotta get there real fast!') to sexual ('Going to f*#k your sweet ass!') in the space of three lines, none of them at all relevant to the song.
Keith Richards then ambles in to tell us he's 'The Worst'. He's being a bit unfair - this is a better song than the last one for sure - but not by much. There are some fans who swear by the Keith ballads on the modern Stones CDs but the problem is most of them sound like the same song recycled. That's especially true for this one, which sounds like the worst parts of 'Sleep Tonight' 'Slipping Away' and 'Break The Spell' all stuck together with the melody taken out. Certainly compared back to back with the similar country-rock songs Keith was writing in his Gram Parsons friendship heyday (1971 or so) it's a nothing song: Keith's narrator feels guilty, he wanted to treat his wife better, but this is how he was born, 'you shouldn't put your trust in me' etc etc. The standard thing you get in country songs where no dogs die and no shotgun weddings take place. That's no good is it? We want change and proof of change or proper guilt, not this 'take me as I am even though I'm rubbish' business. Keith sings this song really oddly too, sometimes from the heart, sometimes with a twinkle in his voice as if he's poking fun at himself but mostly as if he's reading the words for the first time and hasn't got a clue what they mean, which is odd given that he wrote most of them (even Mick isn't brave enough to write Keith a song titled 'The Worst'!) A low-key backing track is most memorable for the out-of-tune violin from 'fastest fiddle player in the world' (according to the Guinness Book Of World Records) Frankie Gavin, who adds an Irish lilt to a song that really doesn't need one.
'New Faces' is a slight improvement in the same way that having a broken arm is a slight improvement over having a broken leg. Mick whispers the count-in, leading you to expect either a demented wild rocker or a soft, sweet acoustic number. What we get is a noisy acoustic number, one that stars Chuck Leavell playing the sort of harpsichord colour part Brian Jones would once have played. The song is a bit of a throwback too, with the sort of vibe of B-sides 'The Singer Not The Song' and 'The Spider and The Fly' and a very sweet, very innocent, 1960s style melody hat recalls 'Lady Jane' (especially with the harpsichord). It's nice to hear The Stones visiting their dim and distant past and they just about get away with turning the clock back to the point where they could sing about teenage crushes rather than mortgages. 'There's a new guy in town' sighs Mick, insecure enough to know his girl is probably going to fall for him as he's young, has deep blue eyes and his skin 'shines as much as his hair' (hmm, sounds like an alien to me!) By the end of the song he realises that he's moaning to an empty room, that his girlfriend 'has swallowed the bait and gone', but that he might be saved heartbreak down the line if she's really that fickle. It's hard to believe this naive song comes from the same band that have already sung the knowing 'You Got Me Rocking' never mind 'Sympathy For The Devil' and the glee in Mick's voice suggests he's not taking the track terribly seriously, but if you can suspend your belief and go back in time and treat it like a 1960s outtake it sounds OK. Better than the last two songs anyway but, truly, this is B-side material, nothing more.
'Moon Is Up' is the one song on the album that works had to go somewhere a bit different to normal. Unfortunately for us where it goes is back to mid-1980s production heavy pop and the result comes over as perhaps the most Stock-Aitken-Waterman that Jagger-Richards ever get. Don Was in his element, doing what he normally does to all of his regular charges (such as his own band Was Not Was and Brian Wilson among others) but rarely gets away with doing to the Stones: treating them as a 'vibe' band whose music can be hidden behind the relentless production techniques that makes Mick sound as if he's singing underwater, Keith sound as if he's playing down a crackly telephone line, Ronnie's pedal steel sounds as if he's strangling a cat and Charlie (playing what's listed in the credits as 'mystery drum') sound as if he's playing from the dark side of the moon! Only Darryl's bass sounds anything like it usually does. Which kinda fits for a song that's all about life being topsy turvy, but is also way way too distracting for what's actually quite a simple song. The lyric - and the riff a little bit - sounds like a twenty-six-year delayed 'reply' to The Beatles' 'Dear Prudence', one where everything is in reverse - for the badder, madder Stones who feel the darker side of life more, it's the 'moon' that's up and the 'sun' that's down. However, sadly, rather than a song about voodoo or werewolves this ends up being just another average number about lost love: 'We are worlds apart, you see' sighs Mick as he wonders 'where are you now?' and imagines the state of his feelings reflected in the sky, the sun hiding behind shadows and the man in the moon shedding a reflective tear. This is a second straight lyric that seems oddly naive by Stones standards and sadly doesn't go anywhere after some nice opening lines.
In stark contrast 'Out Of Tears' is the album and second-half-of-career highlight and shows just how well The Stones could do naive if they wanted to. The best of a fine string of ballads that run back to 'Angie' 'Sister Morphine' and 'As Tears Go By', this song is a thirty-years-on sequel to the latter, the narrator no longer cool and dispassionate as yet another romance dies out. Mick and guest pianist Chuck Leavell both excel themselves, conjuring up a world where again everything is wrong and nothing is right, eerily familiar and yet so different now Mick is facing it alone. Mick's mute, paralysed, having a panic attack and struggling to breathe now that his lover has left him. But equally he's been through heartbreak so many times by now in later life that he's numb for real this time. Suddenly this shy, scared little song, with Mick admitting that never again will he risk this pain or 'pour my heart out to another thing' betrays him. One of the strongest Stones choruses in years comes out from behind the clouds and shows that Mick is wrong, that he's emotionally broken and passionate even when he swears that 'I won't cry, my eyes are dry'. This is a narrator whose only pretending to be a rock, to be an island and thereafter every line gives him away as he 'drifts' and 'dreams', struggling to come to terms with a loss that's clearly hit him hard. The real gem on this song though is the melody, which is exquisite, the sound of a wounded album being slowly coaxed out of its cage so that you know by the time of the third straight chorus repeat that he'll be back out into the world and trying for love again. Still, the pain is real and actually at odds with the timing - it's at one with the agonised Jagger break-up songs with Jerry Hall from a few years later but here back when their marriage is heading for its 15th anniversary is at best a dress rehearsal for those songs. Musically the highlight is one of Ronnie's best moments with the band, a pedal steel solo that, fully in keeping with the song, is a noisy and wild rock and roll solo that comes from nowhere despite being played in the usual muted country-rock laidback style. Everything in this song is much the same as normal, except different - which works well on a song that's about exactly that feeling; luckily for us (for now) that includes the quality with 'Out Of Tears' a song as strong as any ballad in the Stones canon and at long last sung from the heart.
So far the only traditionally lurid and hard-edged Stones songs that have worked that well are the opening two. Thankfully side two starts with 'I Go Wild' which adds a third, a song that couldn't be more template Stones if it came with a nervous breakdown or a step off of a cloud. Admittedly the style is closer to 1980s Stones than 1960s or 1970s but even there it comes off better than almost anything the band actually did in that decade ('Start Me Up' and 'One Hit To The Body?') with a cracking variant on the 'Satisfaction' riff, all tightly knit energy and hurt, and another more emotional than average lyric. You know how sticks and stones can break bones but words can never hurt? Not here, not when the narrator's loved one is getting physical as she gets angry, 'in my face' and pushing buttons designed to hurt. Mick tries hard to keep his feelings in check but is pushed to breaking point even while he sounds regretful about retaliating at all, which makes for a much more likeable and believable variation on the band's usual misogynistic sound than their usual fare. In a twist on 'Midnight Rambler' it's the narrator whose been 'whipped' (albeit verbally), whose the 'hurting' victim and who is himself the slave (not 'Brown Sugar'), all because of a 'poisoned kiss' he badly regrets. Even so, the narrator is trapped, unable to function without his abusive lover, a 'raggedy dog in the streets' (not the resilient stray cat 'Voodoo'). By the middle of the song the abuse is so bad he's left in hospital on life support, having come off worst in a row and the hint is that as the male in the relationship it's him who gets the 'blame' amongst family and friends both for having attacked a woman (even in self-defence) and for coming off worse. This is another of those Stones narrators who just can't win and offers us a long line of women he's going to stay away from for the forseeable future: 'femme fatales, dirty bitches, daylight drabs, night-time witches, working girls, dance hall babes, waitresses, 'checkout girls striking poses' and most memorably 'politician's wives', perhaps remembering how much trouble Mick got into when allegedly having an affair with Canadian president Trudeau's first wife Margaret. This song could have been just another shouty Stones number but is given more time energy and effort than most, especially the stunning 'a capella break' near he end of the song when the narrator apparently loses it for good.
Alas there's almost no effort at all spent on 'Brand New Car', which is a broken-down and secondhand jalopy even for a genre not exactly known for its invention. The Stones try to cook up a groove akin to The Beach Boys but as it's played slower and darker loses all point. Mick's boastful unlikeable narrator boasting about his motor also sounds in need of a good slap, quite frankly. Mick lives to dive his brand new car 'real hard' and takes cute looking hitch-hikers for a 'friendly spin'. In a repeat of (yet another) Beatles reference 'Drive My Car' his latest conquest is a star whose broken down out there on the road - cue endless innuendoes about Mick thinking her 'slinky as a panther, listen to her engine purr' and wanting to 'open up her hood' and 'check if her oil smells good'. personally I'd go with the final lyric which reckons 'I should stop and park', but not for the reasons Mick's leering narrator imagines but because this is all complete and utter derivative rubbish, way below the band's usual standards even towards the end of their career. Only David McMurray's sleepy saxophone really catches the ear and even that is a part that would have been better played by old ostracised friend Bobby Keyes, surely? The album's lowest moment - and boy is that saying something!
'Sweethearts Together' is another sweet and innocent backlash about a cute ideal romance that sounds like an early one - a teenage crush or close. The pair of lovers look forward to a long life of happiness together with all those decades stretching out before them and strong enough together that nothing can break them at all. Many reviewers compare this song to The Beatles' 'Two Of Us' with it's Mick n Keith harmonies round the same microphone vibe, but actually it stretches back further to be the single closest song to a 'Merseybeat ballad' (think 'This Boy' or 'If I Fell') in the Stones canon - thirty years too late! There's no way we can forget the leering narrator of the last song (or indeed the past few decades) so the song doesn't quite come over as innocently as it needs to in order to work and the arrangement is pretty ropey as played here, with Charlie's drums way too loud and an accordion oddly floating its way through the mix to no great end result really. This is a song that would have fared a lot better had The Stones parked it to a singer with a more innocent reputation (as per Marianne Faithful of 1964/1965) complete with 'sha-wah-wahs', although of course if they had no one would ever have believed this was really a 'Stones' song. Ronnie gets his pedal steel out of it's case again, but to a far lesser result this time around.
'Suck On The Jugular' is such a Stones number from the title on down, but sadly that's the problem - you know exactly where a song like this is going to go and even a bigger (and louder!) part for Charlie than normal can't hide the fact that this is empty filler. 'All get together and feel alright!' slurs Mick, trying to reprise his old 'Miss You' disco vibe for a hip-hop generation, but the closest he can come is noisy thrashful Sly and the Family Stone, without the groove or the wit. The narrator's on a dancefloor, 'lying low' to stalk out the chicks and staying single but he's a 'man not a machine' and he goes into first gear when he sees a girl he fancies. Feeling like a vampire, he feels the bloodlust coming over him as he prepares to kiss - a violent kiss judging by the title. That's it, really, with the Stones content to let the groove play away while Mick barks 'Let's go!' and 'ah-ha!' endlessly over the top. Much more impressive is his bluesy mouthorgan playing which turns this stupid contemporary song in contemporary clothing into a successor (of sorts) to the blues. 'Watch me blow and self-destruct!' mocks Mick at the end - and he's not kidding!
'Blinded By Rainbows' doesn't quite come off either, but at least you can't accuse this complex song of repeating old ground. On first hearing it's another song of lost and failed love, the narrator 'feeling the knife' 'counting the cost' and 'hiding away' so he won't get hurt again. But a quick flick over the opening verse makes this song sound more like a Christian rock song, opening with the line 'Did you ever feel the pain he felt upon the cross?' and wondering about the merits of self-sacrifice. Apparently the song is even more complex than that, inspired by one of several IRA bombings in England and Ireland in this period (for a quick run-down for those not from the area the IRA are a 'breakaway' group who disagree with being governed by an English parliament that took them over by force, established a tax system and largely abandoned the inhabitants during several hunger crisis while expecting them to still serve British interests in the army, leaving the country literally divided with a line between Southern and Northern Ireland; by the same token though people have been horrified at the extreme and gory tactics used to breakup what was by the 1970s a generally peaceful coexistence; it's a complex matter that had been rumbling since the early 1970s when two ex-Beatles and Lindisfarne weighed in on the Irish side). It's a kind of sequel to 'Street Fighting Man' then, about how a sleepy Irish town won't ever explode into full scale anarchy even though morally perhaps they should, but seems ambiguous about its political feelings (and as innocent as it can be, not even mentioning Ireland by name anywhere, which made the whole thing kind of pointless as a protest song until the Stones began talking it up in interviews for the album). Mick comes out on the side of the IRA to some extent, seeing the bomber blowing himself up as a 'martyr' and wondering what goes through his head, with the politicians after a peaceful agreement 'blinded by rainbows' and hope of a better life, conned into handing over so much power that wasn't theirs to give. But then comes the rejoinder, as Mick goes on to imagine the bomber 'imagining the screams' of the innocent people he kills along with him, 'their limbs torn up' and even this blood-lusting band think that's a price too far, wondering how terrorists 'sleep at night' and whether they see their 'final hour' as 'just another job'. Mick's conclusion: 'Paradise is lost' and no one is going to take such a blood-curdling act of revenge properly. It would be easier to take this song at face value as a serious protest had the band a) stuck to their guns and come out on one side or another b) hadn't offered the clumsy rhyme 'Rainbows' with 'Windows' for no apparent reason and c) sung 'Rahhhhhnbowwwws' in exactly the same tongue-in-cheek way heard on 'She's A Rainbow' from a full twenty-seven years earlier. The melody isn't as strong as the words either and even those are more ambitious and daring than actually good. Did the band spend as long thinking about this song I have? I doubt it!
'Baby Break It Down' is a classy, overlooked song though in the Stones' mould. Keith's latest 'Satisfaction' variation is paranoid and sinister, picked up on by a Mick lyric that has him wondering if his relationship is over and concluding that he's still, prepared to fight and that they have 'along way to go', in his head at least. Mick sounds resigned, howling 'long way down' as if he's falling through a trap door and singing with a sad shake of the head. However this is more than your average break-up song: what exactly does that title mean? 'Break It Down' suggests the narrator wants to put an end to a partnership (maybe even the Jagger-Richards one given their recent feuding?) but this song is trying to build the couple back up again. What the narrator seems to mean is that the couple should 'break down' what is good about their relationship and hang on to it, but never quite comes out and says it so what we have is a song of mixed messages, a song that tries so hard to be upbeat and happy (this could easily have been a typical joyful Stones adrenalin rush if played a little faster) and tries to put things right but secretly knows things are doomed. Mick admits the relationship is too 'fragile to touch' and wonders 'why does one of us have to be the boss?' but still he won't take his own advice, give in and let his girl have her way. Fearing an inevitable split, Mick tries to get his partner to join him in 'putting your love around' the crack in the wall, all the while Keith is trying his best to angrily split chunks out of that riff. A clever twist on the usual Stones fare this, well played by a band who are back to meaning what they're saying once again.
'Thru and Thru' is a sleepy Keith Richards ballad that as usual sounds somehow separate from the rest of the album, as if it's working to a completely different time-scale, floating away on a cloud rather than pouncing on prey like so many Stones songs. That's particularly apt given that Keith is lonely and desperate 'for a call from you', time standing still as she's so busy she hasn't got a second but he's got all the time to agonise over what that missed call might symbolise. Keith opens the song with a joke, claiming he's open '24 hours' and 'we even do takeaways' before sticking the knife in that there's no reason not to call: 'I'm an open book' and 'I'm even in the Yellow Pages' (a British telephone directory for business - and yes, it really is printed on yellow paper; it was the cheapest colour to print after white, the paper used for residential listings. I bet they go through a lot of ink cartridges in their building!) So far so good, with this again oddly sweet and innocent song (the old Stones would have assumed she was up to all sorts of mischief and got up to his own in revenge!) possessing a sweet, laidback melody that really stands out on this album. But then things go wrong - and noisy - as Keith explodes in fury, expecting a call 'any day now, any hour' and throwing a tantrum when it doesn't arrive. In truth it's just an excuse to make up for the fact that song doesn't have a real ending and simply repeats everything we've just heard in angrier, spikier tones. Also, maybe Keith's narrator might have had better luck had he, you know, learnt to spell, with the title a clear throwback to 'Slade', for no apparent reason (which is also why we're re-branding as 'Alahn's Crazee Arkives!' first thing tomorrow).Oddly the main guitar lead isn't by Keith or even by Ronnie but by guest Pierre De Beauport (usually their roadie credited for 'technical support' on the sleeve), even though it's a part both Stones could have handled quite easily (Mick too, to be honest). Which is a nice gesture I suppose - how many roadies can say they've played with their main band (and we won't mention The Byrds' song by and about roadies 'B B Class Road' if you don't!)
The album then ends on an odd note with 'Mean Disposition'. It's not a bad song, bluesier than most recent Stones originals but very much in that line of their traditional numbers but it's an average filler song, not a natural album closer and particularly for an album this long. It's much like the covers the band will return to on 'Blue and Lonesome' in 2016 but to be honest not even that good - you know where this song is going from the opening verse and the Stones sound as if they've been playing it all day, losing any of the spontaneity they need to make a track this simple work this well. You can probably work out where this song is going from the title: the narrator's girl is rude and surly and has always been like this (so why marry her in the first place then?) The only really ear-catching moment is the last of the great Keith Richards Chuck Berry guitar breaks, duck-walking across the speakers like the clock has been turned back forty years. Chuck would never have written a song this simple or without a sting in the tail though with the song's awkward lines 'I'm standing my ground, like Davy Crockett at the Alamo' a strange way for such a British (ie polite!) blues song to round off. Mick slurs that 'I'm going to work on you the way you worked on me!' and promises to 'put you in my sights'. But somehow, unlike so many previous songs (including 'Love Is Strong' if seen in the right light) he doesn't sound at all threatening and comes over more as a pussycat, 'under the thumb' of his missus. Which doesn't sound much like the Stones at all.
But then, they've only sounded like The Stones on the surface of this album anyway. That's what's surprising about 'Voodoo Lounge' - it sounds like an album that's only content to go over the past, but then it hits you that by going so far back into the past this album is actually much braver than if The Stones had simply done what they tried (and largely failed) to do during the 1980s and recorded what everyone else was doing, only worse. Maybe this record might have been better had it come with more of the voodoo groove vibe hinted at by the title and cover art and requested by Mick. Maybe it would have been worse though - at least the Stones know how to make these songs sound good, well some of the time, even if a few of them are only distant memories by now. The result is a strange album, with a little bit of everything, the good the bad and the ugly. When this album is good it's very very good - and when it's bad it's awful. Sometimes the Stones are stirred by memories of their past to return to the days when they effortlessly wrote hits all the time and come up with half an album that's their best in years, better even perhaps than 'Steel Wheels' their best for a very long time ('Some Girls' in 1978?) Sometimes the band sound so incompetent you wonder if they can tie their own shoelaces. For the first time, but not the last sadly, the extended length of the CD is really working against the Stones and leaves them struggling to fill a full hour's worth of material, with six, maybe seven great tracks and eight slices of nothing. It's a rollercoaster ride then, not a lounge of a listen but not really voodoo either with the album sound and packaging giving us two entirely different vibes. The songs too don't cover a single mood the way the band usually do, all upbeat or all dark and brooding. The sound an album that doesn't know whether to kiss or kill you, often on the same track - which maybe in retrospect maybe this is the most Stones album of them all! The Stones will get slightly more consistent than this on their next two albums but also never reach this album's peak, with the band's last 'big bangs' all here.