Rock critics are often too eager to praise the Rolling Stones, and proclaim that the band's newest album -- whatever it happens to be -- is its best work since (pick one) "Some Girls," "Exile on Main Street" or "Beggar's Banquet."
Of course, it almost never is. The albums frequently end up being something like "Tattoo You" or "Dirty Work," careerist garbage that even dedicated Stones fans dismiss. No wonder, then, that many readers now take the phrase "the best Stones album since " as meaning "pretty much the same stuff as last time."
So let's make this clear from the start: "Stripped" (Virgin 41040, arriving in stores today), is not the band's best live album since "Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out," or even "Love You Live."
It's their best live album. Period.
Don't believe me? Fair enough. I wouldn't have thought it possible myself until I spent some time at the stereo with it. Even though the Voodoo Lounge tour that crisscrossed America last year (and played Europe and Asia earlier this year) was the band's most impressive road show in two decades, that was no guarantee that the inevitable concert recording would be as enjoyable -- particularly given the stiffness of the band's last live album, "Flashpoint."
But "Stripped" takes a different approach than previous tour albums. Its 14 selections were recorded not in the stadiums the Stones packed nightly, but in considerably smaller venues: The Paradiso Club in Amsterdam, The Olympia Theatre in Paris and rehearsal halls in Tokyo and Lisbon. As a result, the music boasts an intimacy and immediacy that even the band's studio sessions sometimes lack.
Even better, the track listing reads like the kind of tape a hard-core fan might make for a long car trip. Rather than simply recap "Voodoo Lounge" or haul out all the obvious warhorses like "Start Me Up" and "Satisfaction," "Stripped" is full of great songs you wouldn't expect to hear: "Shine a Light," "The Spider and the Fly," "Dead Flowers," "Sweet Virginia," "Slipping Away."
It's not all lesser-known tunes, of course. Things get off to a ferocious start with a raucous, to-the-barricades run through "Street Fighting Man," and as the album progresses, we're treated to a tender, tremulous "Wild Horses," a sassy, honky-tonk take on "Let It Bleed," and a surprisingly affectionate "Angie." Toss in a pair of unexpected covers -- an impressively laid-back rendition of Willie Dixon's "Little Baby" and a dead-on reading of Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" -- and this shapes up as an amazingly well-balanced collection of songs.
Still, it isn't the material so much as what the Stones do with it. Listen to the way Keith Richards and Ron Wood trade licks on "Little Baby," with Wood's slippery lap-slide offering almost angelic counterpoint to the brusque staccato of Richard's chicken-picked blues, and you'll have a sense of how intuitive their interplay has become.
Or skip over to "I'm Free," and marvel at the ease with which the rhythm section evokes the mid-tempo pulse of classic Motown. There isn't anything showy about what gets played, but between the tempered power of Charlie Watts' drumming, the gentle prodding of Darryl Jones' bass and the chordal cushion provided by Chuck Leavell's keyboards, the Stones convey such total command of the groove that the original single almost pales in comparison.
Later, when the horns and backing vocalists are brought in to back Richards on "Slipping Away," that confidence transforms the band so completely you'd almost think somebody had sneaked the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section onto the album, so soulful is the playing. (But who in Muscle Shoals could match Watts' reserve with the brushes, or the tart eloquence of Wood's acoustic slide?)
Then there's Mick Jagger, who is flat-out stunning from beginning to end. Gone are the mannerisms that once made his attempts at country and blues singing seem so contrived; this time around, he sings as if he means every word, from the seriocomic despair of "Dead Flowers" ("I felt like a hillbilly for a minute there," he says at the end), to the world-weary fatalism that fuels "Love In Vain."
It isn't just that two years of rehearsal and touring have whipped his voice into condition, although that's part of it. The real difference is that Jagger genuinely seems to be enjoying himself, and that puts a passion in his performance like nothing the fans have heard since the glory days of 1969-71.
OK, OK. That's just more "best Stones album since " talk. But I can't help it: "Stripped" is too much fun not to gush over. And if that sounds like predictable rock-critic cant, sorry. It's not my fault these guys won't fade away.