Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Day 11: A song by my favourite band

My favourite band, eh? I was girding myself up for at least a paragraph's worth of self-righteous, self-important bollocks about how hard it would be to narrow down all the myriad bands I love to just a single favourite. But then I mentioned this to my wife, who laughed at me, and told me that I was just going to end up choosing the Rolling Stones anyway, so why waste my time fussing about it? And of course, she was completely right. She often is.

So, given the entire back catalogue of The Word's Greatest Rock'n'Roll Band* to choose from, which song should I go for? The obvious choice would clearly be 'Jumpin' Jack Flash' - one of the finest rock singles ever recorded, and a solid runner-up when I was trying to settle on my favourite song for the first post, almost a fortnight ago - but the problem with obvious is that it's also boring. While I'm writing this blog primarily for my own sake at this point, I can't imagine that anyone reading it could possibly not have heard JJF dozens of times before, and it'd be nice to at least occasionally point someone towards a song with which they weren't already intimately-familiar. So, steering away from the band's (justly) much-lauded peak era, today's song is an overlooked gem from 1994 instead.

*Offer valid 24/05/1968 - 26/07/1972. No refunds, terms & conditions may apply.

Admittedly, this song isn't quite as overlooked as it used to be, since it was deployed to powerful effect over the montage which closed the final episode of the second season of The Sopranos. It was the perfect choice - moody, contemplative and uncharacteristically mature, it's as brilliant as it is atypical for the Stones, and I'd suggest that it's also the best song they've recorded in nearly forty years.

It's sung by Keith Richards, too, which is a good sign - his one or two songs-per-album since the '80s have consistently been highlights of otherwise-mediocre records, and this is no exception. He can't sing worth a damn, of course, but that doesn't mean there isn't pleasure to be derived from his ruined, smoke-and-age-raddled creak of a voice. The lack of melodic charm is more than compensated for with his voice's rich texture and obvious sincerity, and it's the vocal which dominates the first half of the song. In a magnificently-uncharacteristic display of musical restraint, it begins with an intimate, stripped-down vocal-and-guitar arrangement...and then continues in the same vein, waiting for well over three minutes before the rest of the band kick in. The slow-burning tension of the intro is never quite lost, though, the band providing a sombre, groovy backing as a confident, controlled Richards simply repeats the melody and lyrics from the first half, but with more intensity. It may lack the more obvious genius of a 'Gimme Shelter' or even a 'Brown Sugar', but it's still a superlative recording, and a rare example of the latter-day Stones breaking away from by-the-numbers self-parody and recording something which sounds fresh, even new - the first time one could say that sincerely since at least 1982's 'Undercover of the Night', and even that was a one-off.

The live version posted above loses some of the intricacy of the studio recording, but the underlying tension is still very much on display, and the band play with a tightness and relative lack of bombast rwhich perfectly offsets Richards' more ragged, endearing sloppiness. I could do without the backing singers, but that's the nature of the beast with the modern Stones, and to be fair, the rest of the backing musicians perform admirably. The two-song mini-set which Keef has performed at just about every Stones show for the past few decades is typically used by more casual fans as the perfect visiting-the-toilet opportunity, indicating beyond doubt that these unfortunate souls don't have a clue what they're missing. It's easy to mock the band as wrinkled has-beens - fun, too - but a group of musicians can't play together for nearly half a century without learning a few tricks, and there's an effortless assurance to their performance, particularly the impeccably-timed interplay between Keith Richards and Charlie Watts, which is hard to resist. The old bastards still have some life in them after all.

No comments: