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Through The Past… Darkly

May 1, 2014

Every once in a while Keith Richards likes to remind the world that he’s more than just a pretty face. Earlier this week he appeared in a video, along a dozen or so other musicians, with a medley of his own “Words Of Wonder” mixed with the Bob Marley/Peter Tosh classic “Get Up, Stand Up”. This was exciting mostly because it’s just fun to see Keith play anything other than the standard Stones set list at this point.

If you’re not familiar with “Words Of Wonder” it’s from Main Offender, Keith’s most recent(to date) solo album. Go ahead and listen to it. I’ll wait.

“Words Of Wonder” is probably the most interesting song any of the Stones have done, separately or together, in over 20 years. The track is builds slowly from a spare, empty beat. At first there is nothing but snare and high hat and a big, open tom. The guitar comes in to provide a bit more life, and then bass as an accent. Keith alternates between whisper and chant. It’s not really a reggae track, it’s more like proto-reggae. It’s primal. There are hints of dub as the instruments slowly build a wall not of sound but of rhythm. At the end it drops any pretense of being a love song. Giving chants and praises. Low friends in high places someone intones.

What’s interesting to me is that you can hear in this song a thread that the Stones nearly picked up. Listening to this one track, you can imagine the later day Rolling Stones sounding very different. Instead of settling down into comfortable blues-rock, the band could have taken the blues back to their foundations.

There were hints of this going at least as far back as Undercover or even, arguably, Beggars Banquet. When the Stones reconvened to make Steel Wheels, they brought in the master musicians of Jajouka for “Continental Drift”. That was light years from the souped up funk of “Shattered”.

After Main Offender, the Stones made Voodoo Lounge, of which Mick said:

It’s very much a kind of time-and-place album. In that way I was quite pleased with the results. But there were a lot of things that we wrote for “Voodoo Lounge” that Don [Was, the record’s producer] steered us away from: groove songs, African influences and things like that. And he steered us very clear of all that. And I think it was a mistake.

I think it was an opportunity missed to go in another direction, which would have been more unusual, a little more radical, although it’s always going to sound like the Rolling Stones.

In the end, I think you could say Keith gave us a feint in that direction with “Thru and Thru”, but mostly Voodoo Lounge was, well, a Stones album.

During the 90’s the Stones toured, and they played “Honkey Tonk Women” more times than you could count. When he had some time off, though, Keith visited Jamacia and produced a group of local Rasta musicians (chanters, really) calling themselves the Wingless Angels. He was clearly fascinated by this sort of primordial, pre-blues music. In 1997, he was quoted as saying “[t]here’s only one song, and Adam and Eve wrote it; the rest is a variation on a theme.”

The Rolling Stones have been pretty quiet in the 21st century. To date they’ve only released one studio album, 2005’s A Bigger Bang. It mostly plays with the Stones time-tested riff-rock(though in a much more convincing way than most of Voodoo Lounge). Still, there are some hints of what could have been.

To me, the most compelling song on A Bigger Bang was “Laugh, I Nearly Died. The song focuses on mood and atmosphere. When the instruments drop out at the end, the song ends with nothing but voices and foot stomps. Back where it all began.

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