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  • Writer's pictureNeil Rajala

ALBUMS WORTH A SPIN: Hackney Diamonds

The Rolling Stones, Hackney Diamonds (10/20) – When the announcement was made back in September that the Rolling Stones would be releasing their first record of all new music since A Bigger Bang in 2006, I, like many other Stones fanatics, had several questions spring to mind. Who are the Rolling Stones in 2023? Who, besides the trio of Jagger, Richards, and Wood would be playing on the album? Would/could Hackney Diamonds sound like the Stones? What kind of lyrics would an 80-year-old Mick come up with? When’s the last time he couldn’t get satisfaction? Would Keith’s advancing arthritis hamper his playing? What could Andrew Watt, producer for the likes of Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, and a couple of Ozzy Osbourne albums fans don’t like much, bring to the party? Would the record be an embarrassing anachronism, or do the Stones still have a place in popular music in 2023? And, especially, what about the gaping black hole where Charlie Watts used to sit?

I’ve listened to Hackney Diamonds many times, in every format at my disposal. I’ve blasted the vinyl on my stereo, listened through my Bluetooth speaker while doing the dishes, cranked it up in the car, damaged my hearing even more with headphones, I've listened sober and not so much, I've cherry-picked the songs on YouTube. The bottom line is my pre-release apprehensions have been mostly blown away by a surprising and very satisfying late-period Stones album. Yes, it absolutely sounds like a Rolling Stones album. In fact, it sounds like an excellent Stones album, even when considered in the long view of their catalog. Far from being embarrassing, it plays with a fleetness of foot and rush of catchy hooks I associate with some of my favorite Stones records - Some Girls, Black & Blue, Between the Buttons – and doesn’t overstay its welcome the way Bigger Bang, Bridges to Babylon, and Voodoo Lounge did in the CD era. Mick’s contribution as main songwriter, lyricist, and vocalist is enormous, but there’s none of the prima donna attitude or lazy execution of his solo albums. The words and music are sharp, sexy, confrontational, and funny; Stonesy exactly like we want them to be.

What hath Andrew Watt wrought? To these old ears, his chief accomplishment is the diamond-hard honing of the song’s choruses. Yep, he uses some modern studio techniques to do it, but I was really impressed how many of these songs stick in your head like glue after one or two listens. There are reports that Mick’s vocals, a highlight of the album for me, were a bit “enhanced” to compensate for his eight decades, but I don’t care. Sometimes Keith and Ronnie’s guitar parts sound assembled rather than played and, again, I don’t care in the slightest. The album punches Stones-hard and sticks fast, and if Watt's modern earworm know-how is what it took to bring the lads forward to 2023, I’m down with it.

Yeah, but what about the songs? A lot of them have subtle call-backs to earlier classics, but to my ears, none sound specifically derivative of what's gone before. It's the familiar Stones sound re-imagined, not a classic rock tribute. "Angry," the first single (and album opener) has a Keith flamethrower riff that's immediately welcome but sounds nothing like "Start Me Up" or "Jumpin' Jack Flash." “Get Close” and “Bite My Head Off” are lean and punkish in the Some Girls mode, without really sounding like they'd fit on that album. “Dreamy Skies” is a worthy addition to their stellar collection of loping country-adjacent songs. Not the camp of “Dear Doctor” or “Faraway Eyes,” think more “Wild Horses” and “Torn and Frayed.” Keith’s beyond world-weary last call (at the bar? in life?) ballad “Tell Me Straight” is a late-night, moving gem.

The two songs that grabbed my eardrums first and haven’t let go are actually the ones that, to me, sound least like what’s come before. Side one’s “Whole Wide World” and side two’s opener “Mess It Up” stick out because they don’t bring to mind old-school Stones, they're both marvelous modern rock songs. Mick leans into his British accent on the former, making it sound like a strain of U.K. music they didn’t participate in the first time around. They’ve come back around to it to show they can master what came to be known as Brit-rock, too. “Mess It Up” is one of the two tracks that use Charlie's drum parts recorded in 2019 for a different producer. At first it struck me as a continuation of their ragged-but-right dance music over the years ("Miss You," "Hot Stuff") but after a few listens the ultra-modern sheen of the arrangements and Mick’s vocals, combined with the sharp-as-a-knife-blade hooks told me this was a decidedly more modern interpretation of that style. It definitely looks forward, not back, in the same way the terrific “Ghost Town” single did.

I won't pick apart the rest of the songs, you should be listening and doing that yourself by now. But I will go back to another question I had in the pre-release days: How does a band, even the Stones, bring aboard heavyweight guests like Sir Elton John, Sir Paul McCartney, (should be Sir) Stevie Wonder, Benmont Tench, and Lady Gaga and not have them overwhelm the project? As you’ve no doubt heard by now, they do it splendidly. To be honest, except for the featured bits like Lady Gaga’s wailing on “Sweet Sounds of Heaven” and Paul’s fuzzed out bass solo on “Bite My Head Off,” you’d be hard-pressed to find the other stars on first listen. Focusing in on Elton’s or Stevie’s (or Benmont’s) wonderful piano parts on their songs is something you can do on later listens; rewarding extra layers to discover at your leisure. Not unlike what used to happen with Ian Stewart’s or Nicky Hopkins’ or Billy Preston’s parts, now that I think about it.

Which brings me to the other “guest,” Charlie Watts. Yeah, I can definitely hear that he’s not there. There’s never been the slightest bit of doubt in my mind that Charlie was as important to the Stones' classic music as Mick and Keith, more important than whatever second guitarist was in the band at the time. Stones fanatics know the story, Charlie was recruited from a jazz band way back when, with a greater affinity for his wardrobe than blues or early rock and roll. His musical heroes were Art Blakey and Charlie Parker, not Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry. His playing, especially by rock fans seduced by the bombast of Keith Moon and, later, Neil Peart, has been called too simple. Anybody who thinks that just hasn't been listening.

Charlie’s uniquely propulsive synthesis of jazz and rock drumming is as much what made Stones music sound like Stones music as Keith’s open-G guitar riffs. Charlie gave the band their swing, their forward momentum, their emotional light and shade. He has so many brilliantly creative fills and grooves in the catalog I’d be here for days trying to call them out, but I have to mention a few near and dear to my heart: the quick triplet leading into the chorus of “Dead Flowers” kicks the song in the ass and makes it unstoppable, the tribal booming of “Paint It Black” made it leap out of the radio and primitive record players in 1966, his amazingly groovy foundation for the shifty “Midnight Rambler,” especially onstage. As much as I'm enjoying listening to vital new Rolling Stones music in 2023, there's a key voice missing in the mix. For me, there's a hole in this very appealing bucket, which might possibly cause my interest to leak out over the coming years.

Charlie's last recorded parts are on “Mess It Up” and “Live By the Sword” and I can hear him loud and clear compared to the rest of Hackney Diamonds. “Mess It Up” survives, and even thrives within, the modern pop gloss of Mr. Watt because of Charlie’s unmistakable, undeniable groove. I doubt he heard the song in his head exactly like this while he was playing on the demo, but his funky swing keeps one of the more experimental songs firmly grounded and rooted to your nearest dance floor. On "Live By the Sword" we get both Charlie's drum track and a new bass part courtesy of original Stone, Bill Wyman. Again, I can hear it calling to me loud and clear - beneath the modern studio polish, there's Bill and Charlie playing together again and it's an absolute delight to my aging ears. They got the band back together one more time.

The reviews of Hackney Diamonds have been largely enthusiastic. It's selling well, crossing over to a younger demographic, and streaming numbers are huge. Their well-oiled promo machine has made sure it's mentioned anywhere you care to look on TV or social media, even in the AARP magazine that shows up at my house every month. The guys, especially Mick, have been giving a lot of insightful and sassy interviews to juice it even more. Overall, the rollout has been spot-on 21st century modern effective, endless vinyl variants and all. I can almost, but not quite, forgive them for the god-awful Jimmy Fallon bullshit.

A few music journalists I've read or listened to have brought up a similar question. What relevance do the Rolling Stones have in the 2023 musical landscape? It's been suggested that without the context of revolution, confrontation, and subversion in their earlier music, the band's reason for being may be lost, especially among a younger audience's short attention span listening habits. Which leads me to my last question: If a band of 80-year-olds, with no financial or reputational need to do so, can create an album like Hackney Diamonds - an album that punches and seduces at such a remarkably high level - top the charts, and blow up the streaming services, how else can we define subversive and revolutionary? This is uncharted rock music history, friends, and I'm thrilled the Stones can still show up and say "we got this," no irony or wishful thinking needed, and the world still listens.

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2023年11月12日 gotta say... I agree with this....



Yes. Yes, it is. I've probably read forty reviews of this album and yours is better than most of them.


I have nothing to add but that I too hope they finish the current body of work. It's interesting to note that an enormous number of unfinished and mostly finished Stones tracks have surfaced in recent years ("Fully Finished Studio Outtakes", '02 sessions, etc) and most were left in the can because they weren't very good. The audacity of Andrew Watt (who was in kindergarten when ABB came out) as straw-boss and creative visionary is what they needed.

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