Saturday, January 22, 2011

Ending My Exploration Of The Rolling Stones Early, Forty Licks Is The Essential Album!

The Good: Some excellent, classic songs by The Rolling Stones, Good use of medium
The Bad: Some less-inspired newer songs by The Rolling Stones, Repetitive.
The Basics: A good, but not extraordinary, album, Forty Licks adequately showcases the works of the Rolling Stones.

When I was studying their music, The Rolling Stones did not grab or sustained my interest nearly as much as I hoped they would. After listening to only a few albums by the band, I feel I get the gist of the group and feel no special desire to explore their music further.

That said, as I reach the end of my listening to The Rolling Stones, I found myself enjoying the two-disc anthology, Forty Licks. Featuring music from throughout the almost forty year career (at that point) of The Rolling Stones, Forty Licks was billed as the ultimate "best of" anthology for The Rolling Stones and it is hard to imagine it being topped since. More than most casual listeners are likely to need or want from the band, this has more than any oldies, classic rock or modern rock station would feature from The Rolling Stones. But for those looking for the definitive collection of the music of The Rolling Stones, including every hit song and recognizable song by the Rolling Stones, Forty Licks is it.

With forty songs on two discs, the total running time of this anthology is over one hundred fifty-five minutes worth of music and it uses the compact disc medium remarkably well. It is largely the artistic endeavor of the Rolling Stones, which has evolved over the years. The two consistent members of the band are Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and the two wrote all but two of the songs and the Rolling Stones play the bulk of the instruments on each song and Jagger provides the lead vocals on all of the songs. The album is not produced by any member of the Rolling Stones and it is surprising that a group that has spent so much time writing music has never moved into the production end of their own works.

In addition to having all of the key songs that are recognizable almost around the entire world, like "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction)," "You Can't Always Get What You Want," and "Paint It Black," "Forty Licks" features less well-known songs like "Love Is Strong" and "Mixed Emotions." For this anthology, the group wrote and produced four songs and tracks like "Don't Stop" do not hold a candle even to more mediocre songs by The Rolling Stones like "Get Off Of My Cloud." But what Forty Licks actually reveals is how few songs by The Rolling Stones actually rock and hold up over the decades. For sure, there are some truly amazing and timeless songs like "Ruby Tuesday" and "Sympathy For The Devil," but after two dozen listens to this two-disc anthology, I am left realizing that only about a dozen of the songs on here actually are classic songs that truly rock.

Largely the reason Forty Licks leaves the listener less impressed with The Rolling Stones is the simple fact that so much of the album is repetitive. The Rolling Stones are largely a guitar, bass and drums combo and for people who have been making rock and roll for so long, they are remarkably unoriginal instrumentally. Quite simply, the instrumental differences between "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" and "Start Me Up" and "Get Off Of My Cloud" are negligible. Similarly, "Brown Sugar," "Beast Of Burden," and even "Sympathy For The Devil" are not dramatically different musical numbers. The guitar, bass, drums are used in almost the same way with stylistically similar progressions of the songs. As a result, the band creates a lot of songs that have little instrumental variation to them.

Appropriately, the Rolling Stones try some new things on some of the newer songs like "Anybody Seen My Baby?" But even songs like that, where the sound is more developed or the inclusion of keyboards on the ballad "Wild Horses" tend to sound more original than the other songs by the Rolling Stones less for the instrumental accompaniment than for the vocals. What makes "Anybody Seen My Baby?" different from so many of the other tracks is the fact that Mick Jagger actually holds a note.

Mick Jagger provides the lead vocals on every song on Forty Licks and he has a decent baritone voice, but he offers very little variation in his performances, which is why when he actually holds notes as opposed to articulating in shorter stanzas (or shorter meter where it is easy for him to take breaths) it is noticeable. Jagger generally does not vary his vocals from his safe range and on the tracks unique to Forty Licks he embodies exactly what the listener expects from Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones, as opposed to challenging that.

The Rolling Stones have an interesting musical tradition in that they come out of the era in rock and roll when the music still had its roots close to folk-rock. As a result, some of the best songs tell little musical storysongs like when Mick Jagger sings "Don't question why she needs to be so free / She'll tell you it's the only way to be / She just can't be chained / To a life where nothing's gained / And nothing's lost / At such a cost / There's no time to lose, I heard her say / Catch your dreams before they slip away / Dying all the time / Lose your dreams / And you will lose your mind. / Ain't life unkind" ("Ruby Tuesday"). The Rolling Stones started off with clever songs that mix well characters and themes and make them musical and different and the real pleasure in hearing some of their hits is hearing how good the initial poetry of the band actually was.

Unfortunately, it did not take long before the band became ridiculously repetitive. Even some of the big hits for the group like "(I Can't Get No Satisfaction)" repeat the title of the song so many times it hardly has any other substance to it. As well, the band has some terrible rhymes that are singsong and droll. With lines like "Love is strong and you're so sweet / You make me hard you make me weak / Love is strong and you're so sweet /And some day, babe we got to meet / A glimpse of you was all it took / A stranger's glance it got me hooked / And I followed you across the stars / I looked for you in seedy bars" ("Love Is Strong") one has to wonder where the group is getting its lyrics. Sure, Mick Jagger and Keith Richard have some poetic gifts, but sometimes, they have some real stinker lines.

As well, the storysongs The Rolling Stones write eventually become more preoccupied with the things Jagger and Richards are into, as opposed to truly universal elements. So, they sing about being famous and traveling the world and doing drugs, rather than the love and relationships they originally sang about. This can be alienating as the musical storysong "Mother's Little Helper" is. While some can relate to being stressed to the point of needing to self medicate, as the musical protagonist does on "Mother's Little Helper" which Jagger presents as "'Things are different today,' / I hear ev'ry mother say / Cooking fresh food for a husband's just a drag / So she buys an instant cake and she burns her frozen steak / And goes running for the shelter of a mother's little helper / And two help her on her way, get her through her busy day / Doctor please, some more of these / Outside the door, she took four more / What a drag it is getting old" but it lacks the universal quality of the band's best songs.

Even so, if one wants an album by The Rolling Stones, this is a great way to go. The recognizable songs are here and there is enough to increase one's appreciation of the group as well. However, it is just as likely that those who have heard The Rolling Stones on the radio will realize that what they have already heard truly is the best the band has to offer.

The best tracks are "Ruby Tuesday" (disc one) and "Beast Of Burden" (disc two) and the low points are "She's A Rainbow" (disc one) and "Angie" (disc two).

For other works by The Rolling Stones, please check out my reviews of:
The Rolling Stones, Now!
Out Of Our Heads
Sticky Fingers
Jump Back: The Best Of The Rolling Stones: 1974 – 1993
Bridges To Babylon


For other album or single reviews, please visit my index page for a nice, organized listing of all of the music I have reviewed! Thanks!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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