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Rolling on

Now in their 50s, the Stones are still Stripped and kickin'

by Richard C. Walls

The Rolling Stones' new Stripped (Virgin) is a welcome variation on the post-tour live album. Semi-unplugged and reaching into the cobwebbed corners of their canon, it blurs the distinction between product and event, between filler and an album that a non-rabid fan might actually want to hear. It also revitalizes those two complementary aspects of the group that have been evident ever since they left their blues and R&B cover-band origins behind: they're dedicated followers of fashion and yet they consider it important that they appear not to give a damn.

One of the enduring charms of Their Satanic Majesties Request, their most egregious foray into the then brave new world of studio transcendence, is that unlike its model, Sgt. Pepper, it sounds pretty much tossed off, stitched together between bacchanals. Their disco efforts ("Miss You," "Emotional Rescue," etc.) were redeemed by Mick Jagger's blatant insincerity and Charlie Watts's smirk, and punk aroused in them a ratty sense of noblesse oblige ("Shattered," etc.) But the reigning ethos of mainstream rock for the past decade or so - studio proficiency - has, with the noticeable exception of that underrated mess Undercover, nurtured their opportunistic yin at the expense of their grubby yang. Their last three studio albums were awfully slick. And slickness, more than the deepening ravines in Mick's face, attests to the morbid capitulation of aging.

So the cool thing about Stripped is that though it's trendy as hell, it also flips the bird at trend by doing it all wrong. First of all, though acoustic guitars are prominently featured, electric ones are laid on when needed, effectively soiling the puritan subtext of "unplugged." Second, what's the last time you heard a live album that offered a fake start with attendant studio chit-chat? But more than that, and the occasional ragged arrangements that sound like demos to be filled in later, it's the predominantly non-greatest-hits program that gums up the formula. We're talking "Sweet Virginia," "Dead Flowers," "I'm Free," and "Spider and the Fly"!

This last one in particular, a callow and uninteresting example of early Jagger/Richards (it was the B-side of "Satisfaction" and appeared on Out of Our Heads, 1965), would seem an unrewarding candidate for revival. But with an acoustic blues arrangement replacing the original tinny Brit Invasion one, and with Jagger's lazy insinuating vocal smoothing over the clockwork structure, it's actually pretty good. On the original, young Mick sang "She was common, flirty, looked about 30," giving the 30 a nasty inflection of awe. To maintain that happy cruelty, the line has been amended to "She was hippy, hefty, looked about 50." Of course, it's a compromise solution - to stay true to the original the prey would have to look "about 60" now - but Jagger's amusing half-a-beat hesitation before managing to get the word "50" out conveys a reluctance at having to go even that far.

There are other surprises. "Dead Flowers," which was a thin country goof that brought Sticky Fingersto a full halt, is done with panache and some nice quasi- Cash posing by Jagger. "Slippin' Away," Keith's feature and the only song here that isn't at least 22 years old, is a lovely junkie's lament ("First the sun, then the moon/One of them will be 'round soon/Slippin' away"). In fact, it always was, but who wants to go back to Steel Wheels to find out? And "Like a Rolling Stone," which looks dubious on paper, since Dylan's folk/rap is nowhere near Jagger's style, is effective for just that reason; it forces Mick to concentrate on his phrasing (the guy doesn't always sound that involved, you see).

Some of the songs resist reviving. "I'm Free," a dumb song when you're 20, is grotesque when you're 50. "Angie" remains now and forever truly maudlin. "Street Fighting Man" is a dim period piece that, having escaped the studio time capsule, chugs along pointlessly. Then there are the songs that are foolproof but beg the question why bother? "Wild Horses" was nailed perfectly the first time (Sticky Fingers), as was "Shine a Light," a faux-gospel song from Exile on Main Street. In fact, decontextualized from that masterpiece of dissolution, where it sounded like a 3 a.m. bad-faith grab at religion when the supply of painkillers is running low, the faux part doesn't really come across. A quibble.

It's pretty good, then, particularly if you think the Stones haven't released anything pretty good in quite a while. If, on the other hand, you actually liked their last three studio albums, actually and genuinely and not because you think you should, or else because you're a critic and you've argued yourself into liking them but you never listen to them anymore, then I don't know. And, like my former heroes, don't give a damn.

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