How the Stones delivered the album they needed into their sixth decade of rock’n’roll

Music reviews

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Leave it to the Rolling Stones to make an album consisting of blues covers relevant in 2016. Anticipation was it would be decent, good at best—and let’s be honest, covers albums are not much to get excited at— but surely not a contender for album of the year right? Wrong.

You could be forgiven for putting in question why four rich rockstars in their seventies would release a. After all it is rather late in the game for the lads. Wrong. Blue and Lonesome possesses all the qualities that made the Rolling Stones legends while delving into the band’s early sound. It’s a love affair. Each band member makes love to the blues resulting in a torrid affair for the ears.

Many point to Tattoo You as the Stones’ last hurrah, and that was back in 1981. That’s not to say the band hasn’t produced decent material since, however their best studio days are decades past. With each subsequent Stones album come the inevitable murmurs of “a return to their roots”. The album really is worthy of a such title with the band playing the songs that influenced them in their, um, youth. Blue and Lonesome puts its money where its mouth is and delivers on that statement.

It’s been 11 years since A Bigger Bang. Blue and Lonesome marks the Stones’23rd British and 25th American albums respectively to be exact—how do to the septuagenarians (although Ron Wood at 69 will always remain the “baby”) fare in the studio?

 

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Well, I’m happy to report that Blue and Lonesome is the real deal. It’s raw, sexy and bold. Many rock bands have tinkered with the blues an attempted a similar approach, but few understand and play this music better than the Rolling Stones. This is more than a mere covers album. It’s an exploration and journey through the blues.

Recorded in three short days, it seems all too easy to write off the album as lazy. A covers album? Could it be that the Stones have run out of things to say? It’s clearly not the case as the conversation happens musically and admittedly, there’s plenty to say. Their take on these blues standards is rich and honest.

Blue and Lonesome exudes a lot of confidence. It’s old, yet it’s new. It’s organic, raw soulful and as promised—bluesy. This is the modern-vintage sound companies like Levis dream of using to sell jeans in their commercials.

Keith Richards’ playful is soulful and rich in emotions. It’s sad when needs be and straightforward when it should. Anyone still questioning his bluesmanship only needs to listen to Blue and Lonesome. His playing here is nicely complemented by Ronnie Woods. Mick Jagger is back on the harmonica and that’s a good thing. His playing is rich and warm, like rediscovering an old friend. It’s adds texture to the Stones’ sound. Charlie Watts, the oldest member of the band at 75, does a commendable job on the drums.

The list of artists covered goes back more than half a century. Names like Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon will no doubt be familiar to some while others such as are not likely to be recognized unless one possesses a vast collection of blues records.

The opening licks of Just Your Fool set the tone for what is a bulk of the album’s sound:, bouncy, straight ahead blues-infused rock. Commit a Crime is perfect contrast of happy music with dramatic lyrics, a staple of the blues. The title song, Blue and Lonesome is a heartfelt ballad brought to life by Jagger’s screams and Richard’s guitar fingering. All of Your Love is a diamond. A smooth, sexy number that makes the best use of instrumentation of any song on the album, particularly the piano. I Gotta Go is a fun fast-paced rollicking number with excellent harmonica. Just Like I Treat You is a vintage upbeat number with just the placement of piano. The album concludes on a high note with the classic blues staple I Can’t Quit You Baby, a song covered by the likes of Led Zeppelin and countless others. The Stones’ version pays tribute while simultaneously being unique. Jagger is an animal possessed on this cover and it’s beautiful.

The band’s passionate performance brings these oldies back to life. The fact that the Stones play this well at their age puts them in a category of their own. There’s just the right amount of added instrumentation on the album, be it piano here or harmonica there it makes a world of difference.

You can’t always get what you want, but any new Rolling Stones is welcome. And while it’s not revolutionary by any means—or everyone’s cup of tea—Blue and Lonesome is no Exile, but it’s a project the band can be damned proud of.

And I thought I knew a lot!

Book reviews, Uncategorized

 

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Van Halen Rising. ECW Press. Renoff, Craig. 2015

Why is Van Halen Rising met with so much acclaim? Because it covers the subject in an academic manner and gives the reader precious content previously unavailable anywhere else. Despite their popularity, it’s remarkable how little is known of Van Halen’s early days. In that sense they really are an exception when it comes to Rock and Metal, where the really big bands have been covered and perhaps over-explained over time. It isn’t the case with Van Halen. Little was known of the band’s early-mid ’70s period, until now that is.

It’s rare to find a book that delves into a band the way Van Halen Rising does. It’s a gold veritable mine of information on the band. It’s even rarer when the book is not an official band-approved release. The subtitle “How a Southern California backyard party band saved heavy metal” rings true. The author ensures the reader knows that fact by the end of the book, and judging by history and figures he presents, he’s not wrong. In a period where sales were declining, established bands became softer or went in different musical directions (i.e. Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, KISS) and disco was taking over.

To say that record companies did not have much belief in Rock at this point would be a gross understatement. Yet Van Halen managed to give Rock the shot in the arm it needed. To the untrained eye, Van Halen popped out of nowhere and became an instant sensation in 1978. Alas it was a long, slow, steady climb for the band as documented by Van Halen Rising.

It was incredible to read about Van Halen’s story in such detail. The Van Halens and their upbringing, their struggles, moving to America, being trained on instruments, falling in love with rock music and forming their bands… And then some. Knowing the name of the teacher who taught the brothers for instance, that’s going above and beyond.

The same can be said about David Lee Roth’s story (although he seems to be exactly who you thought he would be in high school). Roth’s prowesses and reputation in his teenage years, playing with Red Ball Jet, being cocky to the Van Halen brothers, it goes on and on. There is considerably less on bassist Michael Anthony, but that was a given. From playing backyards to clubs, demoing songs, getting “discovered” by Gene Simmons, dealing with record companies, the backlash against Rock music etc. it never lets us down.

The book uses a lot of quotes to form it’s style and dialogue. It’s a style that can cause the reader to lose interest in certain instances, but never with Van Halen Rising. Sometimes it would be their neighbours talking and painting the scene, or their friends and fans, but whoever is talking it never gets tiresome. I don’t think I’ll ever remember any of those people’s names, but their contributions to the book and Van Halen’s history are not to be undermined. There’s a reason people like Ted Templeman and Chuck Klosterman are giving it hefty praises and why fans are so into this book.

It’s a wonderful book. Many have been written about the mighty Van Halen before, but none ever reached the degree of sources and knowledge Van Halen Rising has. This one takes the cake no doubt about it. It’s revealing, fun and it tells the story as accurately as l believe is possible.

Greg Renoff did VH a solid by writing this book. Everything is properly sourced and attributed to the right people or source. I wouldn’t have it any other way, especially when you’re dealing with a book on a topic where information can sometimes be scarce (in this case VH’s early days). The sources and index sections are also very welcome. Van Halen Rising is a wet dream for the band’s fans. 5 stars.

Your average run-of-the-mill rockstar bio

Book reviews

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Adrenalized: Life, Def Leppard and beyond, Atria Books, Phil Collen, Chris Epting, 2015. 

 

I always wondered who would be the first member of Def Leppard to release a book, and to be honest, I didn’t think it would be Phil Collen. In Adrenalized Collen covers his childhood in Hackney to his foray in the band Girl and of course, Def Leppard. It’s interesting to finally get a book from someone in the Leppard clan.

I see some reviews making a big deal about this book, and others claiming it was boring and had little to offer. I fall somewhere in the middle. I consider myself a seasoned veteran of the rock autobiography and believe I can make distinction between the divide.

First things first, Collen’s childhood offered nothing out of the ordinary or fascinating. It was much more informative to read about his days in the band Girl, who achieved some moderate success in the U.K. He really takes us back to that scene and era with the makeup, the androgyny, hanging out in gay bars and behind the music of Girl. It’s well-known that Collen wasn’t a member of Leppard’s first two albums and he gives his stance on them and how it felt for him to join an already established band.

There’s an interesting moment where Phil discusses High N’ Dry vs Pyromania and goes deeper into Mutt Lang’s contributions and ideas for the band and their sound. Collen believes Pyromania was original and a stepping stone but that “…the band’s originality culminated in the Hysteria album”. There’s a lot going into Adrenalize and Slang, then the content becomes less and less. It becomes more about tours -which band they toured with and such anecdotes- than proper storytelling. Up until then he gave good amounts of stories and information on the band’s biggest years and tours.

While we’re at it, I’m sure a lot of readers would’ve no doubt preferred more Phil Collen and less “guests”.

Adrenalized is very quick read at just about 200 pages. We also hear from people in Phil’s entourage who help tell the story (family, band members, ex-bandmates, wife etc). There are also numerous concert and album reviews that end up taking a lot of space. I don’t think Collen needs that much gratification from other sources in his own book. All of this superfluous content detracts from the story. He just needs to tell the story his own way, it’d be enough. It helps paint the picture but it happens a lot for what is supposed to be an autobiography.

While we’re at it, I’m sure a lot of readers would’ve no doubt preferred more Phil Collen and less “guests”. What is supposed to be a tool ends up hurting the book. And then there’s a lot of “…And then l was with this girl and then she got jealous of this girl so l ran of with her” as well, and so it becomes more of the same.

“…the band’s originality culminated in the Hysteria album”

The book seems to be done a bit too much by the number at times. Drugs? Check. Girls? Check. Joining über Rock band Def Leppard? Check. Life-changing moment? Check. Finding love? Check. A revelation of some kind? Check. I don’t know if it’s because there have been so many autobiographies on Rock musicians, but it seems lacking and doesn’t really do or say anything different. We don’t get as much of a feel for Phil’s personality as maybe we should. He just seems like this kind lad who somehow ended up in a massive rock band.

We get some glimpses of human moments -impacts, such as Steve Clark’s death or Rick Allen’s famous accident-  like when Phil took his mom out on tour, that add a relatable human aspect to the book. It’s a good read for the obsessed and curious Leppard fans, but there’s no fanfare here. Don’t expect much revelations besides a few insights into the band, it’s simply an average Rock autobiography done by the numbers. Being the Leppard fan that I am I had to buy it. I went through the book’s 200 pages very quickly, and l thought it could have been more than what it ultimately ended up being. 3/5 stars.