The Rolling Stones release a surprisingly fantastic new record (review)

Rolling Stones – Hackney Diamonds (Universal)

Mick & Keef get a little help from their friends on their best album in over 3 decades

What do the Rolling Stones have left to prove?  Well, apparently a lot.  Their 26th album is very good, and certainly worth a listen.

I’m not sure how he does it, but Mick Jagger sounds fantastic – still very much Mick – screaming, yelping, pleading.  Keith Richards’ guitar is very hot in the mix, and that slinky, behind-the-beat drumming, is still very much a part of things.  Only this time, with the passing of Charlie Watts, it’s handled by Steve Jordan. There’s also some very nice guest appearances.

The album opens with the fierce “Angry” – Jordan does his best Watts’ imitation.  I dig when the song breaks down, we hear producer Andrew Watts’ piano, then a fine Ronnie Wood solo.  Next comes “Get Close,” propelled by a funky groove, and a great sax solo near the end, and guest piano by Elton John.  This is vintage-sounding Stones.  

“Depending on You” is a fantastic ballad led by lightly-strummed guitar and piano, and Benmont Tench on organ.  “Bite My Head Off” features Paul McCartney on bass – the verses are aggressive, but it features a great chorus.  

The one thing that stands out from Hackney Diamonds is that it’s melodic.  “Whole Wide World” has somewhat bland verses, but the chorus and great guitar solo save it.  Same goes for “Driving Me Too Hard” – the verses are just ok, but the dreamy chorus with a slinky guitar is fantastic.  

The stripped-down “Dreamy Skies,” with its acoustic and slide guitar, and piano could’ve been an Exile outtake.  I love Richards’ background vocals here.

“Mess It Up” is an absolute wonder.  One of only two tracks featuring late drummer Charlie Watts; it’s his phenomenal rhythms, heavy on the hi hat, that makes this the most danceable Stones’ track since “Miss You.”  And dig Jagger’s falsetto on the “I won’t lie” part near the end.  They would be foolish to not release this as a single.

“Live By the Sword” sees the return of original bassist Bill Wyman on a Stones’ record for the first time in 35 years.  That, coupled with this being the other track featuring Watts, makes this the most complete Stones’ band song in a very long time.  It’s another track with tasty piano from Elton John.   Great guitar solo on this one too.

“Tell Me Straight” is a surprisingly good ballad from Richards.

“Sweet Sounds of Heaven” features Lady Gaga on vocals and Stevie Wonder on organ and piano.  This is an obvious ode to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” not only in the chord progression, but also in the way the song builds, and its length.  Jagger and Gaga trade “oh yeahs” near the end, and it’s good fun.  

“Rolling Stone Blues” is the absolutely perfect way to end.  This is the Muddy Waters’ song that brought Jagger and Richards together as youths.  Unbelievable that they’ve never put this on record before, it’s just Richards’ electric guitar and Jagger on vocals and harmonica.  It’s chilling in its immediacy – reminding us where these guys came from, albeit an eternity ago.  

There’s word that the band recorded enough tracks to fill up an additional album.  So, the possibility that we’ll have yet another Stones’ record soon is certainly good news.  Especially if it’s as great as this one.   

In the Rolling Stones’ long history, they’ve only recorded a handful of albums that are solid, from start to finish – there’s usually filler in there somewhere (think “Continental Drift” on the otherwise pretty-good Steel Wheels).  With Hackney Diamonds, they’ve created an excellent album, brimming with excitement and swagger, that can proudly stand next to the band’s finest work.  —Tony Peters