“Voodoo Lounge” Revisited

17Apr12

For the uncelebrated 15th Anniversary of their 22nd (or 20th, depending on where you’re from) studio album, I have decided to re-examine “Voodoo Lounge,” the non-comeback comeback record that marked my first official Rolling Stones album purchase.

True, I had previously bought “Hot Rocks,” but that’s a greatest hits AND it was on tape. This was my first album of all originals (as much as they could muster). It was also a contemporary album. I bought it the same year it was released, which I cannot say for their previous work. As I mentioned in my book report on Keith Richards’ “Life,” the Voodoo Lounge-period Stones are, in many ways, “my” Rolling Stones. That is to say, this is the way they were when I first got into them, so I always identify this period with the band.

It’s been many years since I’ve heard “Voodoo Lounge” in its entirety. Or seen the disc. A few years back I actually copied a few songs off of this one and “Bridges to Babylon” and made a compilation disc to go in my collection, and then stuffed the original discs in a drawer. I wasn’t playing them and I had no intention of suddenly going back.

How wrong I was. My recent infatuation with the “Ron Wood Period” has rekindled my curiosity and I wanted to see how “Voodoo Lounge” — a record I always kind of liked, or at least had positive feelings for and felt weird when I heard it get bashed — held up.

The short answer is: not well. While some of the tracks still pop, and others were surprises, the whole “lack of maturity” angle sometimes felt more and more apt. First of all: the album is like 70 minutes long. That’s a long time even for a great record, and it’s an almost intolerable length for a so-so record. If some fat had been trimmed — or if this had been released before CD’s in the vinyl era — a leaner, meaner collection would have likely emerged. As it is, we have this monster, which too often produces more embarrassment than excitement.

Here’s how it unfolds, track by track.

1. “Love Is Strong.” The album opens with a bang with this sultry, swampy blues rock, and I’ve always liked this song. Up until this forced revisit, it was the lone “Voodoo Lounge” cut to make it on my iPod. Perhaps it is my admiration for “Love Is Strong” that has kept alive my positive opinion of the entire album. The reason I so strongly like “Love Is Strong” probably has more to do with the Stones’performance of the song at the 1994 MTV Music Video Awards…

The criticism often thrown at late-period Stones albums (which I mentioned earlier) is that they lack maturity. Where their contemporaries either aged gracefully into more respectable personas (David Bowie) or rebounded artistically, garnering new critical acclaim (Bob Dylan), the Stones were content to remain shaggy, horny rock ‘n’ roll dirtbags. This criticism is supported by the unfortunate “Love Is Strong” lyric, “You make me hard,” which I’ve always been embarrassed about and often sang “You make me hot” instead.

THE POINT is that in the MTV Clip above, by use of simple lighting and costumes, the Stones (particularly Jagger) don’t come off as trying to be something they are not. The creepy voodoo shaman coat and hat and glasses is one that I wish Jagger had claimed for later incarnations, because not only is it not tight T-shirts and spandex, but it looks totally bad ass. It seems so easy: you have a wrinkled face, so use it.

2. “You Got Me Rocking.” It has always baffled me how of the few good/great songs on this album, this one should survive in their concerts. You don’t get much more standard with “You Got Me Rocking.” First of all, the title/chorus… there are a few things that irk me instantly in rock lyrics, and using the term “rocking” is one of them (don’t worry: we’ll get to the other in a minute). I’m actually straining to write anything entertaining about “YGMR,” and that’s saying something. I guess I’ll re-iterate my shock that the Stones continue to play it. I guess they feel they want to touch ever album in some way, but why pick this song over something like “Love Is Strong?” I’ve seen the Stones live twice (1997 and 1999) and BOTH TIMES they played this stupid bar rock. The only reason to play it over “Love Is Strong” is that it lacks a harmonica solo, thus making “YGMR” easier.

3. “Sparks Will Fly.” If and when I ever write an article on the embarrassing lyrics this band has popped out, I will again recall “Sparks Will Fly.” I remember playing the CD in the car on a 1994-sh family trip. By this time, I’d heard the album a few times and knew the couple lines that might offend the parents, so I was always careful to start saying something when the lines “I wanna fuck your sweet ass” came up. There we would be, sitting in near-silence, and I would suddenly pop up with something like, “The Bears are gonna resign Jim Thorton, right?” Anyway, now I don’t like the song itself.

4. “The Worst.” One of the few tracks that have benefited from A.) time, B.) distance, and C.) being a good song. It’s also one of the tracks I have been thinking about the most in the last couple months thanks to reading the Keith Richards autobiography. As fine a song as “The Worst” is, it still exemplifies that failings of all the best Richards-sung tunes in the later-period of the band: it’s a Keith Richards song, not really a Rolling Stones song. You just get the feeling that it was written and included in spite of the efforts of, ahem, everyone in the band. Still, good is good, and at this point, “Voodoo Lounge” needs all the help it can get.

5. “New Faces.” I remember a harsh review of this album accused the Stones of basically rewriting their old hits and repackaging them here. That makes “New Faces” the “Lady Jane” of this set, but the thing is, I like “New Faces” better than “Lady Jane.” It’s delicate and rather honest without being completely autobiography. So that’s two in a row.

6. “Moon Is Up.” Not bad, but not great and at this point, I’m starting to reconsider my new-found distaste for “Voodoo Lounge.” I know when I owned it (and even a bit now) I preferred rock songs to ballads. Consequently, I would (probably) throw a song like this under the tracks. And my overwhelming feeling that “Lounge” is a good record hangs on the rock songs. But now, it’s those songs that are letting me down and slow tracks — even the passable ones like this — that are, at the very least, keeping the album going. As I said, it’s not great, but it’s not awesome. Probably the review for the whole album in a nutshell.

7. “Out of Tears.” The “Wild Horses” of the album, only not as inspired. Once more, another victory by way of being “not bad.” That counts four in a row, which isn’t bad, really.

8. “I Go Wild.” If I had to lay bets 10 years ago, and you’d told me that I’d think the previous four tracks were good, then I would have tracked “I Go Wild” as the fifth in a row. And I would lose. It’s another of those lame songs where, when wanting to prove how wild they (still) are, write a song stating it. It comes off as well as giving yourself a nickname. And a cool one. If I went around insisting people call me “Cool-Ass,” people would take that as an act of desperation and neediness. ‘Nuff said.

9. “Brand New Car.” Seriously, what is with this band’s late period and car metaphors? They do it on the next two albums, too, and it’s pretty annoying. Leave it to the Beach Boys already.

10. “Sweethearts Together.” A temporary reprieve from the mediocre and the desperate, this one’s another “at least it’s not embarrassing” track.

11. “Suck on the Jugular.” Save the embarrassment for this thing. Almost everything about this song is annoying: the white-funk bass line, the chorus of studio singers, the very idea of sucking on a jugular. But the top prize goes to the refrain, “All get together and rock all night.” So lame. And just when you wish they’d change it up, they do and they awkwardly assure the Parental Warning label which accompanied the CD.

12. “Blinded by Rainbows.” Nothing like spelling it out, I guess. F.

13. “Baby Break It Down.” What is there to say? It exists. I’m also reminded that nearly every song begins with drums. 9 out of the 15, in fact. NINE of the 15 songs start virtually the same way. And it’s not in an intentional, Ramones kind of a way.

The longer I write about these songs, the more I think about cutting them from my iPod. Most of them only exist to be skipped.

14. “Thru and Thru.” Another Keith, but another good one. The interesting thing about songs like this one is that they often sound like nothing the band has done before. In a good way. It chases nothing but the discoveries of the song itself. That mid-song snare bang surprises like a gunshot. It’s fantastic. Almost worth this semi-miserable recollection.

15. “Mean Disposition.” I had been hanging my hat on this final track for a while, and it didn’t let me down. Not anything special, except in present company, and maybe that’s why I have always felt so positively about it. But it also holds up to individual play, so I suppose that makes it a kind of winner. What a race, right?

So of fifteen tracks, I can think of at least five that are so lame that they drag down what could have been a fine album. And that’s the best word for tracks like “You Got Me Rocking” and “I Go Wild;” they’re lame. They are bar rock songs played at a subpar level and for a band capable of so much more, the gulf in quality seems all the more vast. I’d probably keep five songs from “Lounge” in my rotation (“Love is Strong,” both Keith songs, “Mean Disposition,” and maybe “New Faces” if I’m feeling nice; but I can’t promise I wouldn’t skip it every time it came up in a shuffle).

I guess I can feel lucky that because this was all via iPod, which means I wouldn’t have been tempted to check out the liner notes (’cause we all want to read the lyrics to these things) and see the ridiculous photos inside.

Man… I just hope this experience saves me from having to re-examine “Bridges to Babylon.”

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