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Stones' album is OK, but band is a KO


We all know by now how the "New Rolling Stones Album" game is played, don't we?

Sure we do. Every three or four years, the World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band (self-appointed) slithers into the studio to cut a new album. Eventually, a tour is announced, the hype machine lurches into gear, and suddenly, with enormous fanfare and much media enthusiasm, a new album is unleashed upon the world.

As always, the reviewers immediately pronounce it "the band's best work in years" -- the unspoken message being that though the last couple were real stinkers, this one really isn't so bad. With that, the W.G.R.R.B. (s.a.) hits the stadium circuit, rakes in a couple of billion, releases the inevitable lame live album, then slinks back into the shadows until everyone has forgotten the last go-round.

Well, it ain't gonna work this time, bub. "Voodoo Lounge" (Virgin 39782, arriving in stores Tuesday) may find the Stones re-staking their claim to rock-and-roll greatness, but not because it's a great album. It's an OK album, played by an amazingly good band.

Confused? Don't be. All it means is that even though the Stones don't write 'em like that anymore, the band plays 'em as well as it ever has. And while that may not seem like much of a deal on the face of it, the truth is that with few exceptions, the playing has always been the thing with these guys.

Think about it. For every truly great song the Stones recorded -- "As Tears Go By," "Honky Tonk Women," "Tumbling Dice" -- there are at least a dozen more that got by strictly on the strength of the performance. Why else would "Jumpin' Jack Flash" have sounded like instant excitement in the Stones' hands, and second-hand garage rock in everybody else's? What else could explain why there has never been an even halfway decent cover of "Miss You"? How else could "Fool to Cry" have gone top-10?

With "Voodoo Lounge," the band has its groove thing in gear from the get-go. "Love Is Strong," the album's opening track and first single, may be a 98-pound weakling of a song, but it's given a real Charles Atlas-class rendition, from the surly snarl of Keith .. Richards' guitar to the muscular thump of Charlie Watts' drums. You may not remember the chorus, but you'll definitely be impressed by the band's confidence.

Likewise, there's an animal intensity to "Sparks Will Fly" that makes the lyric's verbal hyperbole almost believable. Some of that has to do with the horny intensity of Mick Jagger's delivery. ++ But most of the credit belongs with the band, which plays the slippery swing of Richards' rhythm licks against the four-on-the-floor drive of Watts' backbeat to impressive effect.

It isn't as if all the album owes all its charm to sheer momentum. Neither of the two Richards-sung songs have much in the way of rhythmic insistence (though "Thru and Thru" does kick into gear for the final choruses), but that hardly diminishes their effectiveness. If anything, the melancholy balladry of "The Worst" is easily one of the best things about this album.

Still, it has to be said that Jagger comes off ferociously well this time out. True, he does sound every bit the bitter boomer in "New Faces," as he grumbles about losing a lover to a cold-eyed and callow "figure of youth" (no fun being on the receiving end, eh, Mick?), but he hardly sounds over the hill. In fact, he refers to his libidinal urges with such frequency and in such unprintably vivid terms that it's hard not to wonder what's gotten into the boy.

Ironically, that very vitality is what undoes some of the album's weaker songs. Try as he might, Jagger is simply incapable of coming across with the kind of world-weary resignation demanded by the thematically ambitious "Blinded by Rainbows" though Richards' harmonies help some). Nor can he convey the naivete necessary to carry the sweet, norteno-flavored sentimentality of "Sweethearts Together" (though Flaco Jimenez's accordion is a pleasure as always).

Then again, maybe he's just bored by having to stick to formula. That certainly seems the case with "Brand New Car," in which Jagger tries to get a few extra miles from the old woman-as-motorcar metaphor, only to end up on cruise control by the final chorus. Far more interesting -- for him and us -- is "Baby Break It Down," which not only upends the sentiment of the "Exile on Main St."-era blues cover "Stop Breaking Down," but cleverly cuts against type by giving the solo spot to Ron Woods' slyly acidic pedal steel.

Even that, though, can't compare to the giddy fun of the album's groove tunes. "Suck on the Jugular" is clearly the standout, inasmuch as it finds the band working a lean, snaky funk lick with the sort of bass-driven authority that largely escaped them in the past (thank new kid Darryl Jones for some of that, and Watts for the rest), but there's just as much pleasure to be had in the steady throb of "Moon Is Up," or the lithe, bluesy swing of "Mean Disposition."

Granted, it helps if you pay less attention to what's being played than to how well. But if the main thing you want at this stage in the game is a sense that the Stones are still as strong a band as ever, you'll find that a little "Voodoo" works wonders.

Stones' 'Voodoo'

To hear excerpts of The Rolling Stones' new album, "Voodoo Lounge," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6151 after you hear the greeting.

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