Saturday, October 21, 2023

The Rolling Stones - Hackney Diamonds

Well, the cover is a bit rubbish.  But as the saying goes, don’t judge a book by it’s cover – and in this case it's damn good advice.
Right from the opening bars of ‘Angry’, Hackney Diamonds grabs the attention.  Steve Jordan’s drums arrive like a whipcrack, swiftly following by a jagged, cross-cutting riff, while the bass - courtesy of either Woody or Keith - rumbles around with ominous intent.  Credit to producer Andrew Watt and everyone else on knob-twiddling duty – the sound is terrific.  Over all this Mick Jagger starts snapping and whining away in inimitable fashion, and it all clatters along most entertainingly, culminating in a very Stonesy cacophony of slashing, razor-like guitars and a shoutalong refrain.
The energy on display is impressive for a bunch of notoriously old geezers. ‘Bite My Head Off’, for example, is punch-in-the-face rock’n’roll, like they’ve taken jump leads to a song like ‘When

The Rolling Stones - Here comes trouble.

The Whip Comes Down’, say. Jagger jabs out the words in tandem with a juddering jackhammer of a riff, reinforced by heavy duty fuzz bass from some codger called McCartney, who even manages to wangle a little break of his own. There’s a scrabbling guitar solo too, as it careers along to a ragged finish. And they follow that with ‘Whole Wide World’, Jordan earning his corn with pounding drums as the foundation for a hacking, chopping riff.  The chorus also manages to sound plangent in the midst of this ruckus, but still has to compete with a violent, scything guitar solo.  Jagger’s Estuary English accent sounds a bit off kilter mind you, but who the fuck cares?
With ‘Mess It Up’ and ‘Live By The Sword’ they pull a couple of songs from the vaults with Charlie Watts behind the drums, and they’re both satisfying memorials. On the former Jagger calls time on some background noodling with a shout of “Come on!”, triggering jangling guitar chords as Charlie whacks out an irresistible four-on-the-floor dance beat.  There’s chunky bass from Andrew Watt, while Keef and Woody seem to have accepted an invitation to get funky, and Jagger flings some falsetto vocals around for a laugh. There’s a constant sense of “This sounds a bit like . . . “, but the reference points are elusive, and anyway it all sounds so fresh it’s not worth bothering about.  ‘Live By The Sword’ is a return to down and dirty riffing, with Elton John of all people turning up to do some ivory bashing.  Jagger gradually winds himself up to some good ol’ fashioned contemptuous sneering, and those two guitars get down to some squealing interplay, while Bill Wyman turns up on bass.
They still find space to hark back to some other favoured avenues though.  ‘Depending On You’ is strum-along pseudo-country, with a neat lift-and-drop melody, Jagger resisting the temptation to go all cod-Americana with his vocal.  It’s elevated by sweeping strings and chiming piano, and all in all demonstrates that they still do this kinda thing better than most of yer latterday “Southern Rock” bands.  They also rediscover Dylan on the sparse and twangy ‘Dreamy Skies’, Jagger virtually channelling the old croaker as he moans that “That damn radio is all that I’ve got.  It just plays Hank Williams, and bad honky tonk.”  He also contributes some tootling melancholy harp, and I can imagine him and Keith grinning at each other as the last notes fall away, just because the music still does it for them.  Keith gets his own turn at the mic on the disarmingly simple ballad ‘Tell Me Straight’.  He’s not a great singer of course, but he still delivers the vocal with feeling, giving it a suitably wistful air.
The longest outing by far is ‘Sweet Sounds Of Heaven’, which opens with some barroom doodling on piano and guitar, before easing into a melody with distant echoes of ‘You Can’t Always Get You Want’.  Or maybe it’s 'Sweet Virginia'.  Or maybe . . . never mind.  Bit by bit it gathers angsty, gospelly momentum, Lady Gaga showing up to give Jagger some wailing company before horns and guitar fills roll up to raise the stakes further, and if they go back to that barroom for a breather it’s only to recharge their batteries for a final, soul-shaking assault.  Okay, so it doesn’t quite have the shocking, primal force of ‘Gimme Shelter’, but it’s still gripping stuff.
Along the way the deeper groove of ‘Get Close’ and the melodic twang of ‘Driving Me Too Hard’ don’t clear the high bar they’ve set on everything else, though they’re solid enough.  But when they close with a new take on Muddy Waters’ ‘Rolling Stone Blues’, going back to basics with hesitant, buzzing guitar and squawks of harp, and Jagger rolling back the years to moan’n’groan like his blues heroes, it’s a reminder of just how deep their roots go.
Old and gnarly they may be, but the Stones can still get some sap to rise now and then.  All that stuff about this maybe being their best album since Some Girls?  Who cares?  All I know is that Hackney Diamonds does, in fact, give me plenty satisfaction.
Hackney Diamonds is out now on Polydor Records.

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