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Lick it Up

 

The Rolling Stones: 40 Licks

Virgin, 2002

Rating: 3.5

 

 

Posted: October 12, 2002

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Let's just cut right to it: Masterworks like Exile on Main Street and Some Girls aside, the Rolling Stones have always been more of a singles band than an album band. Which is to say, the Stones' enduring strength lay in short, sharp bursts of songcraft, rather than records that sustained a particular mood or thematic cohesion. Let's just pick some early singles at random: "Get Off of My Cloud." "Under My Thumb." "Paint It, Black." "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." Even "Mother's Little Helper" and "19th Nervous Breakdown." In each, you hear a confident band still new and eager enough to approach each individual song with a level of care, creativity and passion some bands can't muster for entire albums. A definitive, easily identifiable "sound" had yet to fully emerge and overtake the songs, the way the strutting, hedonistic aura of "The Stones" would indelibly paint "Brown Sugar" or "Honky Tonk Women" or even the masterful "Gimme Shelter."

Now let's rattle off another list of singles. Ready? "She Was Hot." "Hang Fire." "Undercover of the Night." "Harlem Shuffle." "Sad Sad Sad." "One Hit (to the Body)." "Rock and a Hard Place."

What? What's that you're asking? Yes, Virginia, those are the Rolling Stones. Not quite the same, is it?

Granted, Forty Licks, the Stones' new career retrospective-slash-40th anniversary marker-slash-grab for quick cash, doesn't actually include too many songs from that latter list, all taken from the band's less-than-stellar post-1980 output. (The title refers to the band's 40th anniversary, 40 songs spread over two discs, and "licks" in terms of both guitar riffs and the band's infamous lips logo. Clever, no?) But it may as well, given the way it rather pathetically (and quite unconvincingly) attempts to hold up the band's latter-day material as "of a piece" with its earlier, more groundbreaking work. It's a good rule of thumb to be wary of any anthology or greatest hits compilation that doesn't track in chronological order, because it's a good bet that the artist in question is burying the filler in amongst the standouts. Because let's be honest: If Forty Licks strictly followed such a time line, instead of lumping four new lackluster tracks (and, frankly, everything from, say, Tattoo You on up) toward the rear of the second disc, no one would ever bother to listen past "Emotional Rescue." Hell, that second disc might as well be a coaster.

Let's face it: As decent a song as, say, "Start Me Up" might be, it marks a very real and impossible to ignore turning point in the Stones' body of work. Yes, that ringing, staccato guitar riff that opens the song is a fun call to arms, but it's also the point where the Stones started cannibalizing themselves. In the '60s and, to a slightly lesser degree, the '70s, the Rolling Stones were in their prime as songwriters and as contributing architects to the zeitgeist of the times. Songs like "Satisfaction" and "Tumbling Dice" sound more as if they were channeled from some deep, primordial well at the core of human urges and universal truth, rather than created by man. Later songs, like "Miss You" and even "Emotional Rescue," while radically different in their more groove-oriented approach (as opposed to the straight emphasis on song that marks the earlier tracks), bear an unmistakable stamp of relevance, of aura and mystique, of creating and being plugged into the world outside.

Whereas "Start Me Up," on the other hand, marks the beginning of a decidedly different Rolling Stones: a band no longer channeling that primal source so much as attempting to emulate its spark. In short, a band beginning to recycle itself. While "Waiting on a Friend," which also hails from Tattoo You, is an exception -- a song that it's almost conceivable to say could have fit in on Exile on Main Street -- 1981 marks the year that the Stones started churning out classicist, as opposed to "classic," rock and roll. The term "classic rock," as a radio format and a genre, hadn't even been coined in 1981, but the Stones were already paving the way for what that unfortunately misnamed genre would ultimately accomplish: an acknowledgment that rock's glory days were behind it, a kind of giving in, of trading in vitality for nostalgic longing. In its refusal to admit this -- in its blithe and transparent attempt to hold up increasingly less-distinctive material alongside unquestionable classics -- Forty Licks comes across as both disingenuous and desperate.

The first disc of this two-disc collection wisely limits itself to the Stones' early and most creatively fertile period. Except for 1971's "Wild Horses," it doesn't leave the 1960s. And even though there are some questionable selections here -- the annoying, trying-too-hard "psychedelia" of "She's a Rainbow," the comparatively lackluster "Have You Seen Your Mother Baby?" -- a strong and unassailable case is made for the band's creative diversity and mercurial growth. Like the Beatles, whose artistic evolution in the span of three ridiculously short years (remember that the leap from Help! to Revolver took only one year), the Stones morphed from an extremely capable producer of hit singles into artists in a remarkably short period. There's subtle but very real growth, for example, from "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Sympathy for the Devil," both from 1968, a point the first disc of Forty Licks drives forcefully home.

It's on the second disc that trouble starts. As a retrospective, it's inevitable and necessary to include songs from across the band's career. But it's a long way from the menacing, jittery jonesing of "Miss You" and "Shattered" -- where drug-fueled balladeers became preening, pimp-strutting peacocks -- to the bland corporate arena rock of "Mixed Emotions." The bemusing "Undercover of the Night," the competent but derivative formula of "You Got Me Rocking" and "Love is Strong" (both from 1994's Voodoo Lounge), the too-slick and disposable "Don't Stop" and the surprisingly deft, if way over praised, Keith Richards ballad "Losing My Touch" (both brand new inclusions) -- none of these numbers are essential to an overview of the Stones' artistic growth, and indeed only detract and distract.

In fact, it's hard not to feel insulted that songs like "Keys to Your Love" (another 2002 addition) and the embarrassingly desperate-to-sound-hip "Anybody Seen My Baby?" (from 1997's Bridges to Babylon and co-written, astonishingly enough, by k.d. lang and her writing partner Ben Mink alongside Richards and Mick Jagger) are deemed more worthy, by virtue of their inclusion, than "Waiting on a Friend" or overlooked gems like "Lady Jane." There's no sense, really, after hearing the second disc in its entirety, in even attempting to argue against the idea that the Stones started going through the motions around 1981, and quit being even a shadow of their former selves by 1997. Thus, Forty Licks, in its egalitarian insistence that "Undercover of the Night" belongs on the same piece of plastic as "Under My Thumb," affirms its existence as mere product, meant to generate cash, and interest in a 40th anniversary tour, rather than a comprehensive or vital overview of the career of one of rock's most important bands. And that's a shame. Listeners can't help if the Rolling Stones ultimately faded away instead of burning out, but they can certainly do something about being forced to swallow substandard material in the guise of a highlight reel. They can choose not to buy Forty Licks.

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