Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Sticky Fingers by The Rolling Stones (1971)

Sticky Fingers is the quintessential rock album, a lesson in album dynamics and pacing. It is a perfect blueprint of ten varied songs, every single one essential to the album united by its moody, narcotic theme. Rockers are overtaken by even more intense songs, that give way to ballads, all the while drenched in overdriven guitars.

The album was the first the band made entirely without involvement of former bandleader Brian Jones, who passed away in mysterious circumstances in 1969, and since the tragic death of a fan at Altamont that same year. It would mark the peak of their resurgence that started in 1968, when the Stones would cast off their mandatory awkward psychedelic phase, return to the blues and turn up the nastiness on Beggars Banquet. 1969’s Let It Bleed continued the trend, very nearly equalling Sticky Fingers in its brief, concentrated dose of rock and blues, delivered intravenously. Where Sticky Fingers would truly outclass its immediate predecessor can be found in the song writing. While Let It Bleed occasionally lags, or throws up one or two nonessential cuts, the consistency of Fingers is commendable.

Illustration 1: Despite their bravado, none of these men actually filled the trousers on the cover

From its rousing opener, the instant homerun single of Brown Sugar, riffs attack the listener. Keith Richards is capably supported by the first full-album appearance of second guitarist Mick Taylor, whose rhythm work and occasional leads liven up the proceedings considerably. Standout track Sway takes the listener to a more leisurely groove, though still positively bursting with licks. Rarely has a track been more suited to its no.2 slot. Sway is also one of two tracks not featuring Richards’ skills; Micks Jagger and Taylor sloppily improvise off of each other. Radio favourite Wild Horses provides relief from the amplified onslaught. Set in this acoustic country-flavoured ballad, Jagger’s affected American twang is completely at home on the prairie. Before the listener can be completely lulled to imaginary ranches far away, Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’s lick, underpinned by a shuffling drumbeat, roars into action. Instantly memorable, the tight song soon opens up to an extended jam encompassing guitar and sax solos. The three-piece that follows is the meat of the album; no frills blues (rockers), of the kind that would be prevalent on Sticky Fingers’ successor: Exile on Main Street. While not as legendary or remarkably majestic as the other tracks on the album, this threesome is a showcase of what the Stones are all about. They demonstrate the band’s taking their early 1960s sound into the 1970s with a clean production, but without concessions to rawness.

Illustration 2: A literal interpretation of "A Head Full of Snow"

Rounding off the album are three opiate-laced ballads, starting with the Marianne Faithfull co-write Sister Morphine. The song paints a desolate picture of a man suffering from withdrawal, hallucinating in a hospital bed, pleading the nurse for his score. On face value, Dead Flowers is a more upbeat country rocker (a cover of which was used in the 1998 film The Big Lebowski), and excellent in that regard, but with mentions of a “needle and a spoon”, the dead flowers in question might well be Afghanistan’s finest. Moonlight Mile, the majestic closer is the second track that does not involve “Keef”, and allows Jagger to indulge in his more orchestral, artsy side. With an almost Japanese flavour to the sound, and plenty of drugs to go around (“With a head full of snow” put literally in one episode of The Sopranos, where the disposal a frozen severed head is transposed with this song), this exotic song is a perfectly twisted closer to an otherwise relatively conventional R’n’B/Rock album.

As a complete package, Sticky Fingers is irresistible. Its iconic Warhol cover, the delightfully meaty production courtesy of Stones regular Jimmy Miller and the instantly accessible songs make for the strongest album the Rolling Stones ever released. Its successor, 1972’s Exile on Main Street might be highly regarded in its sprawling wonder as well, but it’s the focus, drive and the hooks that put Fingers head and shoulders above the rest of the Stones’ vast catalogue.