Saturday, December 3, 2016

Blue and Lonesome by the Rolling Stones: Meh.

You heard me: meh. M - E- H. Meh.

I've just listened to The Rolling Stones' new album, Blue and Lonesome, on Spotify, and I'm disappointed. (I have no idea how long the album will be available for a free listen on Spotify. If you follow the link and the album isn't there, I apologize.)

It's a pretty good record. But the Rolling Stones have made a lot of recordings which are miles and miles better than pretty good.

Blue and Lonesome is all cover versions of old blues records like Howlin' Wolf's "Commit a Crime," Little Johnny Taylor's "Everybody Knows About My Good Thing," with Eric Clapton sitting on on slide guitar, and the title track, originally recorded by Memphis Slim. These were the records the Rolling Stones and Clapton listened to when they were kids, the music that made them want to be musicians. And Blue and Lonesome sounds very much like those records from over a half-century ago.

And that's exactly the problem. Those old blues records were great because Howlin' Wolf and Memphis Slim & Co weren't copying anybody. On the contrary, they were making music unlike anything anybody had ever heard. That's what makes great popular music and jazz electrifying: you never heard anything like it. Bob Dylan expresses the critical principle very well when he sings, "I try my best to be just like I am." If you're not trying to do that, you're leaving out the most important part of the music. That doesn't mean you can't do cover versions. Not at all. It means that if you want your cover version to be better than just something by a cover band, you've got to completely forget about doing a cover band's job, which is to sound like the original record. You've got to completely give up sounding like anybody on Earth except your own sweet unique self. That kid Dylan is smart, he just got a Nobel Prize, people should listen to what he says. The Stones and Clapton owe a great debt to the makers of old blues records like the ones they cover on Blue and Lonesome, and Clapton has been especially good at making people understand that debt. He's a good man, and that's a good thing he's done. Still, when Clapton and Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker covered Robert Johnson's "Crossroads" on Cream's album Goodbye, released in 1969, it sounded unlike anything anyone had ever heard. And that's what makes Cream's version of "Crossroads" 1) a great recording, and 2) completely unlike anything on Blue and Lonesome: they were playing Johnson's song, but they sounded exactly like Cream. They succeeded in being just like they were.

On their album Let it Bleed, also 1969, the Stones covered another song by Robert Johnson, "Love in Vain." And they made the same mistake they make on the entire Blue and Lonesome album: they tried way too damn hard to sound like Robert Johnson, instead of sounding like the Rolling Stones. On the rest of Let it Bleed, they sound exactly like the Rolling Stones, and they sound really great.

Another example: in 1967 Smoky Robinson & the Miracles released "Tears of a Clown," and it's a tremendous record, unlike anything anyone had ever heard. And in 1979, The English Beat released their cover version of "Tears of a Clown," and it's a tremendous record, completely unlike anything anyone had ever heard. 1 song, 2 unique records. The two recordings sound utterly unlike each other, but they're two of my very favorite recordings.

Blue and Lonesome is not bad. But it's an album made by a cover band, by skilled musicians doing an excellent job at the utterly pointless task of copying records somebody else already made. It's like putting on a raincoat before you take a shower. It's like listening to the original cast recording of Jersey Boys instead of listening to a record by Frankie Valli. And the Rolling Stones can do so much better than that. If you want that thrill that Keith and Mick and Eric got when they were kids listening to blues records -- those recordings are still around. And they kick Blue and Lonesome's ass.

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