Monday, January 3, 2011

Indistinct The Rolling Stones: Sticky Fingers Is A One-Hit Failure!

The Good: Good guitarwork, I suppose
The Bad: Uninspired lyrics, Blasé vocals, Instrumentals are unsurprising and bland, SHORT!
The Basics: Generic rock and roll on a very short album makes Sticky Fingers a passionless endeavor from The Rolling Stones which may easily be avoided without losing anything significant.

As I listened to more of the music of The Rolling Stones, I found myself far less impressed, even by the earlier works that most people seem to like. Listening to Sticky Fingers on pretty heavy replay, is so unmemorable an experience that it did not surprise me at all that the Wikipedia entry for the album actually was more preoccupied with the photographs on the album and liner notes than the music on the disc! Released in 1971, Sticky Fingers is only marginally memorable as the album that released the single “Brown Sugar” to the world. While some might, when I think of the pantheon of great The Rolling Stones singles, “Brown Sugar” is never at the top of that list. Even if it were, it frontloads the album and there is nothing truly memorable after that song.

Listening to Sticky Fingers on heavy replay, the listener is overcome with a strong sense of ambivalence; nothing truly sticks out on this album. As a result, playing it over and over again, one is numbed by a rather short disc which does not have the hook of some of The Rolling Stones’ other works. There is a distinct lack of musical drama in this album and the overall sound is so generically rock and roll and so obviously The Rolling Stones that it offers no challenge to the listener’s ears. Instead, even after only two listens, the listener is likely to be bored and exhausted by the monotony of the album.

With only ten tracks, clocking out at a pretty sparse 46:25, Sticky Fingers is mostly the work of The Rolling Stones. The quintet, at the time, of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Mick Taylor, Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman, plays all of the primary instruments on the album. Richards and Jagger wrote eight of the songs, co-wrote another and “You Gotta Move” is a cover. While Mick Jagger and Keith Richards take the main vocals and most of the backing vocals, there are a few supporting vocalists and a few additional instrumentalists on the album. As well, no member of the band was involved in the production of the album, so it is up for debate how much of the ultimate sound of the album is actually the intended sound.

The instrumental accompaniment on Sticky Fingers is exactly what one might expect from The Rolling Stones. This is a very traditional rock and roll band with a guitar, bass and drums. For sure, the intent is to rock and there are sometimes three different styles of guitar in play (plus a bass) but the music is generally limited in its sound to be that of a very traditional guitar rock band. On “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” there is an extended guitar solo that goes on for several minutes and this is the place that the guitars are highlighted the most on the album (the rest of the time, they are sublimated to vocals and the drums are pretty pounding). The thing is, in “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” the guitar plays for several minutes and after nine listens to this entire album, I still have no memory of the theme the guitar solo takes. Instead of having a coherent melody, the song has a generic guitar riff that keeps going on. With the current generation of Guitar Hero playing kids, it does not even sound complicated.

Outside the somewhat lackluster guitars, the memorable instrument is the drums. Despite the fact that some songs have pianos or even a saxophone, the only other instrument that truly stands out is the drumming of Charlie Watts. Watts bangs his heart out on songs like “Sister Morphine” and he keeps mellow time on “Sway.”

As for the vocals, Mick Jagger performs with his usual vocal swagger, but the album never seems to have the passion or defiance that other works by The Rolling Stones achieve. Instead, he remains in his very safe, average baritone range to sing out about problems with women, success with women and everything else he mumbles through. Yes, on Sticky Fingers, Jagger is less comprehensible than he usually is, which makes it more difficult to understand what he is singing in some places. Unlike most early albums by The Rolling Stones, the emphasis does not appear to be on making musical storysongs that are epic in scope, yet clearly understood. In fact, only “Wild Horses” and “Brown Sugar” have any lines I even remember from my many listens. Part of the reason for this is that Mick Jagger and producer Jimmy Miller do not emphasize the vocals the way they ought to in terms of production and performance.

The other reason is that many of the lyrics are not at all memorable or extraordinary. Singing about how down on their luck he feels, Mick Jagger drones out “Ain't flinging tears out on the dusty ground / For all my friends out on the burial ground / Can't stand the feeling getting so brought down / It's just that demon life has got me in its sway” (“Sway”). The song, like many on Sticky Fingers, is plagued by singsong rhymes that do not resonate with an emotional gravitas for such dark themes. Because the lines are simple and they are presented with little distinction in tune, it is hard to get the dark, oppressive feel the song seems to be striving for.

In fact, the only song that truly seems to have a powerful emotional resonance that matches the lyrics is “Wild Horses.” “Wild Horses” is a pretty typical love song where the musical protagonist clings to the woman he loves. The song has a decent sense of poetry and imagery with its lines “I know I dreamed you a sin and a lie / I have my freedom, but I don't have much time / Faith has been broken, tears must be cried / Let's do some living after love dies / Wild horses couldn't drag me away / Wild, wild horses, we'll ride them someday” (“Wild Horses”). It is also the exception to the rule on the album in that it is fairly well presented. In other words, it holds up because it is unlike the rest of the album in terms of lyrics.

Outside that, the songs do fall flat. The assumedly fiery “Bitch” is lyrically unmemorable and nothing on the second half of the album stands out in any way. This is an album not only without hooks, but without statement. Instead, the theme is “this is rock and roll, this is what we sing about,” and the presentation is so unremarkable as to be entirely forgettable.

The best song is “Wild Horses,” the rest of the songs pretty well blend together as musical mush.

For other works by The Rolling Stones, please check out my reviews of:
The Rolling Stones, Now!
Out Of Our Heads
Bridges To Babylon


For other music reviews, please visit my index page for an organized listing!

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

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