Wednesday, September 12, 2007

What would life be like if it never changed? Installment 8

More thoughts on my Top Ten Life-Changing Albums. Thanks to Eek for beginning the thread that led me to this list.

(Note: Italics indicate my initial response to Eek's challenge; the rest constitutes my further thoughts on the subject).

8. Black and Blue, The Rolling Stones. Largely considered one of the worst Stones albums out there, I know, but it spoke to me much more so than the acknowledged classics. Features not only the hits “Memory Motel” and “Fool to Cry,” but also “Hand of Fate,” the greatest Stones song you’ve never heard.

Recorded during a mid-70s period of transition wherein the Rolling Stones were seeking to replace the considerable chops of the departed Mick Taylor, Black and Blue served as an audition album; no less than three lead guitarists participated - including soon-to-be Stone Ron Wood.

If the album sounds somewhat slapped together, that's because it is, relying on jams such as the opener "Hot Stuff" and "Hey Negrita" to fill it out. The former is actually quite good and points to the disco influences that would be further explored on Some Girls. The cover "Cherry Oh Baby" clearly inspired UB40 to try it out a few years later, demonstrating that the Stones not only borrowed but also inspired, even when they were interpreting others' material.

The production of Black and Blue is top-notch, and this is particularly true in the case of Charlie Watts' drums. Each piece is recorded separately, foregoing the Exile on Main Street method, which had the entire kit placed into the mix on a single microphone. With a drummer of Watts' feel and subtlety, the results here are sublime. Instrument separation is very clean and as a bonus visual aid, the track mix is reproduced on the record sleeve, indicating who played what instruments on which songs, and how the 16 tracks were subsequently apportioned. I find this sort of thing thoroughly intriguing.

The playing of guest guitarists Harvey Mandel and Wayne Perkins is spectacular throughout. Perkins, though an American, should have been given the full-time job as the newest Stone, solely on the strength of his work on the criminally unknown "Hand of Fate." As noted above, this is the greatest Stones song you've never heard, completely archetypal and still fresh-sounding today.

Never has Mick Jagger sounded so convincing as a rough-throated badass, inhabiting the role of a man on the run for gunning down his rival in a love triangle: "He shot me once, but I shot him twice." Nicely played! Keith Richards provides the bedrock, playing another of his endless variations of the "Brown Sugar" riff on Telecaster through overdriven tube amp. When Perkins' guitar kicks in, especially on his two nonchalantly brilliant solos, it is vintage Stones all the way. Keep "Start Me Up," I'll take this over it any day.

Ultimately, despite its shortcomings (or perhaps because of them) the looseness of this disc is actually its own reward. While there aren't numerous memorable moments, there is more attitude in the moments that work than in other bands' entire discographies. This disc might be incontrovertible proof that the Stones perfected the art of rock and roll swagger.

Life-changing indeed: Black and Blue works as a perfect metaphor for life: off-center, askew, bent, beat up, broken, with just those passing delirious moments of joy that keep you going through it all.

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