Rod Stewart's rock of ages He sounds as good on his newest release as he did on the classic albums of the early '70s


"I'm down here in Palm Beach with four women," rasps Rod Stewart over the phone. "It's not going to be that much fun."

Ah, the vicissitudes of stardom. Here's Rod Stewart, a man whose career is built around such songs as "Hot Legs," "Passion" and "Tonight's the Night," a man famous for asking if we thought he was sexy (and knowing full well the answer), complaining about having to spend a perfect spring evening with four women.

"And they're all drop-dead gorgeous as well," he laments.

It's not as if Stewart has anything against the four young lovelies, a group that includes his wife, model-turned-actress Rachel Hunter; her sister; and their two best friends. It's just that Stewart's team, Celtic, has just won the Scottish Football Association Cup, and like any good fan, he wants to celebrate in the traditional, manly way: by drinking, telling stories, and poking fun at Celtic's arch-rivals, the Rangers.

"This is one night that I'd rather be with a bunch of guys, I'll tell you," he says.

That Stewart still likes to go boozing is a bit of a relief, given the focus of his new album, "When We Were the New Boys" (which arrives in stores on Tuesday). From the twin-guitar roar of Oasis' "Cigarettes and Alcohol" to the Stones-style raunch of Graham Parker's "Hotel Chambermaid," it's an album that celebrates the vitality of current British rock by showing how much these new songs sound like Stewart's old band, the Faces.

"Well, the writing's got a great deal to do with it," says Stewart. "What I've done is, I've picked one of the best songs by Oasis, one of the best songs by Primal Scream, one of the best songs by Skunk Anansie, and turned them into my songs."

It helps that the arrangements totally Stewart-ize the material. Working for the most part with a stripped-down quintet -- two guitars, keyboards, bass and drums -- Stewart has gone back to basics for the album. Between the boogie-schooled raunch of the guitars and the soulful swagger of the rhythm section, the album delivers a sound so close to what Stewart did in the early '70s you'd think he put a time machine in the recording studio.

"I think it's got all the ingredients of an 'Every Picture Tells a Story,' " he says, referring to the 1971 album many fans consider his greatest recording.

Given that Stewart produced "When We Were the New Boys," his enthusiasm might seem a tad immodest. But he doesn't hog the credit. "I just found such a great band, I can't praise them enough," he says, sounding genuinely enthusiastic. "I mean, there are so many rock and roll guitar players out, and there's not too many can play this sort of stuff.

"And they're Americans, too!" he adds, laughing. "I always thought the British were the only ones that could do it."

As good as his band is, the 53-year old Stewart sounds even better. His version of Nick Lowe's "Shelly My Love" is a wonder, with Stewart's voice climbing into falsetto with an ease and finesse that would shame a singer half his age, while "Rocks" finds him spitting lyrics with the vigor of one who believes every word of the "Get your rocks off" chorus. The guy sounds as good as he ever has.

"Believe it or not, I'm a lot fitter now than I was I'd say 15 years ago," he says, adding that he owes much of his vocal vitality to the earpiece-style monitors he has been using onstage. Looking a bit like a pair of hearing aids, these tiny, wireless headphones let singers hear what they're doing no matter how loud the band is.

"God, I think I would have had to have stopped singing 10 years ago if I hadn't have started using these things," says Stewart. "I was punishing my voice so much, because I couldn't hear myself.

"So because I don't have to put so much energy in trying to get my voice above the band, I seem to have a lot more energy to put into the show, and I seem to have more range in the voice than I've ever done. I mean, I think the voice on this album sounds incredible.

"If I say so myself," he says, and laughs. "But it's true. The voice, it just gets better and better."

It also helps that Stewart has no trouble relating to the hell-raising described in songs like "Cigarettes and Alcohol." After all, when he and Ron Wood joined the Faces back in 1969, they quickly build a world-class reputation for boozing and substance abuse, so it's not hard to see young hellions Oasis and Primal Scream as kindred spirits.

"I think those guys are going though the same pattern of success that we went through in the Faces in the early '70s," he says. "They're hotel-wreckers. They're drinkers, and they, you know. They're wild men like we used to be."

Well, not entirely. Although Stewart will admit to all the other excesses of success, he points out that there is one vice from which he has always abstained: tobacco. "I've never smoked," he says. "Which is quite ironic, really, because my 17-year old son, I'm having trouble with him drinking beer and smoking. He says, 'But Dad, what about that song on your album?'

"I might have put myself in [a bind], really," he says, and laughs.

Pub Date: 5/31/98

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