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Monday, February 21, 2011

The Rolling Stones - Sticky Fingers.

Simply, one of my all time favourite albums by one of my all time favourite bands. The review's OK too - even though I was apparently an "avid country music hater" at the time. For shame. It just goes to show how much one's music tastes can evolve over the course of half a decade.

Between the years 1968 and 1972 the Rolling Stones were at the top of their game, releasing no less than four classic studio albums and one of the most beloved live albums of all time. In the middle of all this though - 1969 to be exact - the band itself was going through turbulent times, with the death of founding member and lead guitarist (if such a thing applies to the Stones), Brian Jones. On both 1968’s Beggars Banquet and 1969’s Let It Bleed, Keith Richards played the vast majority of the guitar parts because of Jones being incapacitated due to his major LSD addiction. After Brian was found dead in his swimming pool soon after being fired by the band, The Stones realized they were in need of a new second guitarist.

Keith had done an exceptional job doubling as lead and rhythm guitar player but, to be fair, he could hardly do both in a live setting so the band set off looking for Brian’s replacement. The answer to their problems came in the form of one Mick Taylor, a Clapton-esque virtuoso guitarist that had played on several of the tracks on Let It Bleed. Considered to be the most technically proficient guitarist the Stones ever had, his guitar interplay with Keith’s more humble playing has taken on legendary status and for good reason. On Get Your Ya Yas Out- The Rolling Stones In Concert the world got their first taste of this extraordinary guitar interplay but our album in question, Sticky Fingers, superceded even that albums dizzying heights.

Not that the guitar interplay is the only thing worth mentioning on this classic album, the songwriting is even more noteworthy and just may be, VERY arguably, Jagger and Richards at their absolute peak. It’s a fairly diverse album too with straightforward riff-rockers, country songs, epic ballads, a bit of R&B and everything in between. It may not be the White Album but it sure as hell isn’t your average Gangsta Rap album either. This is also probably the best album to start your Stones collection with as it contains just about everything that makes the band as legendary as it is: catchy riffs, lyrics that actually fit the mood of their respective songs, beautiful ballads and some of that guitar interplay that I may have mentioned before.

The lyrics on this album and those that would follow are much more explicit than their sixties counterparts –though still quite tame by today’s standards- due to the band signing to a different label. Still, the more vulgar lyrics are usually confined to those songs that are meant to offend anyone who takes them seriously. Lastly, on the lyrical side, there is a very noticeable drug theme running throughout this album with no less than six or seven of the ten tracks being related in some way to drugs.

The first song on the album actually has nothing to do with drugs. Rather it deals with that good old universal theme of slave rape! As you may have guessed by now ‘Brown Sugar’, for that is what it is called, is one of those songs that were written to offend anyone who is unable to recognize when Mick Jagger’s proverbial tongue is tucked firmly in his proverbial cheek. Ignore the lyrics if you wish but DO NOT ignore the melody which, to put it very simply, RULES! It’s one of those riff-rockers that the Stones are famous for and is among their very best, though amazingly enough not the best on this very album. That is still to come.

Next we come to ‘Sway’ a rather impressive little song that actually manages to be one of the album’s worst moments. Don’t worry true believers, it’s still a damn fine song with some blistering guitar solos provided by the Mick that’s not providing the vocals. The song’s main problem is it feels like its stuck somewhere between a ballad and a rocker and as such comes across as neither beautiful nor rocking. Actually, come to think of it, that’s not really its problem. No, its problem is much simpler, it is sandwiched between that truly rocking ‘Brown Sugar’ and what is very simply one of the greatest, most hauntingly beautiful ballads ever.

If anyone ever questions Mick Jaggers ability to write and sing a genuinely moving song be so kind as to direct them to this, their third song on their 1971 masterpiece, Sticky Fingers. This one actually is about drugs in some twisted, roundabout way. Mick wrote this song to Mariane Faithful, his lady friend at the time who had just gotten out of a drug-induced coma (at least that’s what happened according to what I’ve read). Anyway, regardless of this, the song is an emotional masterpiece both lyrically and, with that compelling melody, musically. Also look out for some of the most impressive electric guitar work by Keith Richards that just may change your perception of the electric guitar forever. In short, ‘Wild Horses’ is my favourite song on the album and in my top three Stones songs ever (along with ‘Gimme Shelter’ and ‘Sypathy For The Devil’, incase you were wondering).

After the beautiful ‘Wild Horses’ the Stones return to more of that good time Rock and Roll that seems to take up most of the first side with ‘Can’t You Here Me Knocking’, another drug related song. Or at least I think it is, I can’t really make out much of the lyrics but it was featured in the opening credits of that Johnny Depp movie, Blow which was pretty definitely about drugs. Anyway, the song is comprised of two parts, the first of which being one of those Keith Richards riff-rockers –and a good one at that- while the second part is a showcase of Mick Taylor’s virtuoso guitar playing and features a really cool saxophone solo as well. The song is the longest on the album clocking in at seven-and-a-quarter minutes but it never manages to get boring. A fine achievement considering some bands can’t prevent a two-minute song from being boring let alone a seven-minute monster like this.

Unfortunately, after those seven minutes of Rock and Roll goodness we come to the worst song on the album, ‘You Gotta Move’, an awkward blues cover that is also fortunately, at two-and-a-half minutes, the shortest song on the album. I have actually said everything that is to be said about the song so let’s move on shall we.

Starting the second side off with a bang is another riff-rocker with disgusting lyrics (from what I can make out, at least) that manages to be even better than ‘Brown Sugar’, a song that it is fairly similar to. ‘Bitch’ just may be the catchiest riff-rocker that the Stones have ever done which is especially impressive considering songs like ‘Satisfaction’, ‘Jumping Jack Flash’ and ‘Brown Sugar’ are pretty damned catchy in their own right. ‘Bitch’ remains an underrated and far-too-often ignored gem.

Following this we have the albums second blues song, the aptly titled ‘I’ve Got The Blues’ which is, to say the least, an improvement. That is, it’s an improvement to my ears, other tend to disagree calling it fake and unconvincing but as far as I’m concerned, though it is no ‘Wild Horses’, it certainly sounds convincing enough. That said, I am certainly not going to disagree that this is the second worst song on the album but for me, that says more about the greatness of the other songs than anything else.

No matter what you may think of ‘I’ve Got The Blues’, the next song, the haunting, genuinely scary ‘Sister Morphine’ is an undeniable classic. The before-mentioned Marianne Faithful apparently wrote the lyrics to this song which detail her horrific experience with hardcore drugs. The desperate, dark melody sung with intense conviction by Jagger and the chilling slide guitar back up the message perfectly. Also, I strongly recommend listening to this song through a good set of headphones if you want to get the full effect of the song. Actually I consider this album, along with most of Pink Floyd’s classic albums, one of the best headphone albums out there. Much of the subtleties in the songs and especially in the guitar interplay are missed when listening to the album through conventional speakers.

But I digress, back to the songs themselves. ‘Dead Flowers’, the second last song on the album is a country song. More to the point it is an astonishingly great country song about, would you believe it, drugs. For me, an avid hater of country music, this song is probably the albums biggest surprise with its irreverent but massively catchy melody acting in strong contrast to the somewhat darker lyrics. Add to that Jagger’s hilarious county drawl and you have a winner of a song that is probably the band’s best country song, though much to my own surprise, not the only good one.

Finishing off the album we have The Rolling Stones’ most epic song, ‘Moonlight Mile’ a magnificent, powerful song if there ever was one. The lyrics, to the best of my knowledge, are about an acid trip but can be interpreted in more universal terms, making it a great traveling song. The melody fits the wondrous nature of the lyrics perfectly and a tasteful string arrangement only adds to the sweeping, epic nature of the song. ‘Moonlight Mile’ is an absolutely perfect album closer to a slightly flawed but exceptional album.

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