[I began this post last Saturday, sitting amidst stacks of potential cd discards. I stopped because something else came up, and I wasn't sure how to finish it; also, it somehow didn't seem to fit, whatever that means. I'd felt like I painted myself into some big-claim corner (a pitfall of longwindedness), when really it was meant to be much more modest. Anyway, here goes, rambly and incomplete as it is...]
I want to argue in favor of a band's catalog, in favor of an artist's minor works. As I begin this post, I am listening to Steel Wheels, the Rolling Stones' 1989 album that kicked off their massive world tour of the same name, effectively ending the post-Dirty Work animosity between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Since then the Stones have released an album every five years or so (generally, as with every Stones album since 1981's Tattoo You, praised in certain quarters as their best record since either Exile On Main Street or Some Girls, depending) and toured the world, making boatloads of money in the process.
I'm listening to Steel Wheels, for the first time in probably 15 years, because I am culling the collection, more aggressively than ever before. I listen to this album, and I'm reminded again of how great the Rolling Stones are. I'm not trying to argue that Steel Wheels is a lost classic or an underappreciated gem. Hardly. I'm not even going to keep it. But, it's fine, you know? It's a perfectly pleasant 45 minutes or so of listening. The band is in fine form, even if the songs generally aren't terribly memorable. Very few Stones albums are unlistenable, and there is plenty to enjoy on Steel Wheels ("Sad Sad Sad", "Terrifying", and "Hold on to Your Hat" would fit in just fine in some comprehensive, career-spanning compilation). It's boilerplate Stones, and there's nothing wrong with that.
Like any normal Stones fan, my favorite album is one of the big, obvious, famous ones. Many opt for Beggars Banquet or Sticky Fingers. I go for Exile on Main Street. Exile, in 1972, finished off their great run of classic records, after which they settled into their period of rock-star excess (as any retread bio will tell you). Ironically, perhaps, the music from this point on seemed modest by comparison, even when they scored a big hit. You could make a kick-ass two cd collection just cherry-picking the singles from the last 35 years, and in truth that would be all you'd really need from that period. But, as ever, there's some good music to be had looking past the obvious.
I've always thought this, but I was struck by this anew a few weeks ago, after returning home from a friend's wedding in Rhode Island. One of the songs played at the reception was the Stones' "It's Only Rock'n Roll". I had great fun pretending to preen like Mick Jagger (seriously). The song is a classic rock radio staple, or used to be anyway. There's something faintly ridiculous about its lyrics, and I had never listened to the music closely before. But I now had the song, especially its opening, stuck in my head, so when I got home, I pulled out my It's Only Rock'n Roll cd and listened to it several times over that next weekend. Somewhere Lester Bangs calls It's Only Rock'n Roll "the first Rolling Stones album that doesn't matter, and thank God for that" (not a direct quote; I could go get my Bangs anthology to check, but that seems like a lot of work). What this album offers is good, solid Rolling Stones music. By the time "Fingerprint File"--the six-plus minute last song--was half done, I realized that here was a damn fine rock album. Nothing on it sticks out like, say, "Sympathy for the Devil" or "Paint it Black"--even "It's Only Rock'n Roll", its big chorus notwithstanding, just sounds like, well, rock and roll, like the Rolling Stones, which I mean in the best possible way. When I think of the Stones, I think of a grimy, swaggering professionalism, if that isn't too much of a contradiction, and this album exudes this quality. If Exile is the quintessential, classic album representing my idea of what the Stones were really about, It's Only Rock'n Roll is the workmanlike entry providing ample evidence that the band lived and breathed this kind of music.