I’ve been harsh on The Rolling Stones over the years. Of course I respect their influence on rock music and pop culture alike, and consider them one of my favorite ‘classic rock’ acts but I’m also realistic. Their era of being unique and exciting, was a short window. Where most bands peak right before calling it quits, The Rolling Stones peaked early and refused to give up the ghost. Some folks may not agree with that opinion but I stand firmly. This controversial stance or proverbial hot take has been solidified with their latest album Blue & Lonesome.
My personal take is The Rolling Stones were only legitimately good from 1966’s Aftermath through 1973’s Goat’s Head Soup. Now before you light the torches and prepare the crucifix, I will say this is my personal opinion on their albums. There was some great tracks from 1974 through 2005 no doubt (“Heaven” being one of my favorite songs from them) but as much as it pains me to say it, the albums have been spotty at best.
After 25 albums (27 depending what part of the world you live) it’s time to get serious about our opinions on The Rolling Stones as an album band. We’re allwell aware Mick Jagger has stage presence like no other, Keith Richards plays killer guitar riffs despite looking like he’s trying to take his jacket off with one arm, and of course their live show is their strongest suit but these things say nothing about those 25 albums.
The cold, hard reality is Rolling Stones albums are usually inconsistent in tone and execution. It’s almost like they don’t even care! Just get in there, record songs so people can hear them and sing along during the tour. That’s an understandable mindset when it comes to lives shows but it takes more than to earn the title of the greatest rock band in the world.
Blue & Lonesome was conceived last year when Jagger and co. entered the studio to work on a proper follow up to 2005’s A Bigger Bang. To warm up, they ripped into a couple vintage blues standards. The tracks turned out so good, they put the new album on hold and decided to keep going with the blues covers. Three days later they had pretty much had the album we’re listening to today. A collection of stripped down blues covers with few overdubs or digital studio trickery.
As a huge fan of the blues myself, I was both excited and apprehensive to give this record a listen. Blues is one of my favorite styles of music play on guitar. To me, there’s nothing that comes close to the sound and feeling of raw emotion being expressed through a lightly distorted guitar and harmonica. With that said, I know how safe and self-lampooning the last 10 or so Stones albums have been. I know the blues is their element but I also know their all 30 years past their prime.
The result? My expectations were met across the board. I was rewarded in the fact of just how amazing of a band The Rolling Stones truly are when it comes to something their passionate about. However, my apprehension was spot on too. While the album works on all levels, it probably would’ve been my favorite album of theirs had it been recorded when each member of the band was under the age of 35.
If you’ve read my critique of many mainstream album releases, you already know how I feel about digital engineering sucking a lot of soul from many otherwise worthwhile artists. There’s no doubt in my mind Blue & Lonesome was recorded in a state of the art studio (produced by the legendary Don Was) but the spontaneous nature of starting this album as a demo and only taking a mere 72 hours to finish, there wasn’t time to over think or over produce it.
The guitars are raw and natural, coming from small vintage amps instead of digital consoles. Jagger’s vocals are rough and imperfect, the bass staggers around based on feeling instead of clicks, and the harmonica sounds like it was recorded on the same mic as the vocals, just like a real blues record! If I was a betting man, I’d say the only full on overdub on the whole record was the guest appearance of Eric Clapton on two guitar solos.
Other than being a bit one note and nearly all songs being in the same key and tempo, I can’t think of any real criticism to give the album! The imperfections are a breath of fresh air and make the album feel honest. Something no other artist has achieved this late in their career. That’s saying something coming from someone who has publicly (and defiantly) trashed just about every post 1973 Stones album on some level throughout my entire life. I can’t say it’s the greatest batch of recordings the Stones have ever done and there isn’t a single stand out track in the bunch, but that automatically makes it a good album album by default. For the first time in over 30 years, it’s a Rolling Stones record that’s not carried by it’s singles!
I wish it would’ve come sooner. These guys are too old to expect an album the world would call their greatest achievement. Instead of playing to a trend, cashing in on their own legendary status, or a desperate money-grab in a last ditch effort to stay relevant, they went in the studio and emerged with something they enjoyed making. No stress, or risk, no tricks. Just a group of old friends playing the tracks they love without thinking too much about it. That feeling is all over Blue & Lonesome and it translates to what I would call their best record since my birth at least.
Blue & Lonesome is available on vinyl, cd, and digital download at The Rolling Stones Official Store