CK Retro Review: Aftermath by The Rolling Stones

Based on their sporadic yet impressive early efforts, you just knew that would be a matter of time before Mick Jagger and Keith Richards dispensed with the cover songs and stepped up their songwriting to challenge the giants of the genre. Yet it was still impossible to predict the huge leap they made with 1966’s Aftermath, entirely self-penned and stunningly self-assured. It didn’t hurt that they unleashed their secret weapon Brian Jones, who stepped forth with instruments exotic and arcane that shaded the words in unexpected ways. The end result is endlessly compelling and stands as one of the band’s finest albums, even if they were still splitting up songs for British and American releases. Here is a song-by-song review. (Since there were some major songs on the UK version of the album that didn’t make the American version, I’ve included my thoughts on them for completeness’ sake.)

TWO STARS

15. “Going Home”- Me personally, I’ve never too much liked the jammy Stones (with the partial exception of “Midnight Rambler”). The main crux of the song doesn’t do it for me, so why would the endless improvisation help any?

14. “Stupid Girl”- I’ve never had a problem with the nastier sentiments in some Stones songs; the pop songbook would be a dull thing if everyone was cordial all the time. I judge it based on how it works as a song, and this one is just pedestrian. Aside from some chirpy keyboards from Ian Stewart and Jack Nitzsche and Jagger’s venom, there’s not much to it.

13. “It’s Not Easy”- Jagger puts his all into this pedestrian Chuck Berry rip and makes it listenable if not too memorable.

THREE STARS

12. “Flight 505”- Kind of a bizarre song about identity issues and plain crashes. The existential slant to the lyrics doesn’t quite match the straight-ahead push of the music, but it’s an interesting oddity and Ian Stewart gets a nice showcase on the intro.

11. “Doncha Bother Me”- With Jones’ slide dominating the musical proceedings with an assist from Stewart’s saloon-y piano and Jagger’s harp solo, this is both a throwback to blues tradition and a look ahead to the traditionalist bent the band would themselves take a few years up the road.

10. “Think”- Richards’ guitar is altered to almost sound like a horn section, giving this one a soulful edge that distinguishes it. Pretty good propulsion from the rhythm section as well, and Jagger does a pretty good job dressing down a girl with selective memory.

9. “What To Do” (UK Album)- It has the smooth swagger of a Sam Cooke track. Never have complaints about boredom ever sounded so non-boring.

8. “High And Dry”- Again, Jagger’s story is kind of goofy, as he tries to scam a rich girl and then decides to go for a poor one next time around. But the back porch blues music is completely convincing, with Richards providing a slick acoustic rhythm and Jones blasting away on harmonica with undeniable feeling.

7. “Take It Or Leave It” (UK Album)- For a guy who was supposed to be the ultimate player, Jagger could sure be convincing in song about the troubles foisted upon him by women; goodness knows, those troubles dominate the subject matter of this album. It’s a shame Jones’ koto isn’t further up in the mix, but otherwise this song is a delicate bit of business tenderly executed.

FOUR STARS

6. “Out Of Time” (UK Album)- They had learned their lessons well from the masters of Motown. And on this underrated track, the interplay between Jones’ marimbas and Richards’ acoustic gives this another dimension that might just have impressed Berry Gordy himself. Meanwhile Jagger’s “You’re obsolete, my baby” is as cutting as anything Dylan might have conjured in one of his epic putdowns.

5. “Lady Jane”- Here’s an example of how Jones’ playing could alter the meaning of a song. His tender work on the Appalachian dulcimer softens the narrator, makes you overlook how he’s hopping from bed to bed in search of the best situation. Jack Nitzsche’s harpsichord puts us in a Victorian court but Jagger is a modern gigolo, inherently sad despite all of his conquests. Unsettingly pretty and unique.

FIVE STARS

4. “I Am Waiting”- The fact that they had reached the point where a knockout like this one was just another album track shows how far the band had come. In this case, the indefinable malaise of which Jagger warns is perfectly suited to the subtly inventive music. Jones is on dulcimer again, plucking with absolute sensitivity, and Richards, a softie in disguise, is right with him on acoustic guitar. The surge into the chorus is a real beauty. It’s one of those evocative, elusive songs that intrigues no matter how many times you hear it. Max Fischer-approved.

3. “Mother’s Little Helper” (UK Album)- It’s hard to imagine them writing a song like this during their late 60’s and early 70’s apex; the empathy of it would have shattered their hardened image somehow. The rhythmic gallop and melodic niftiness keeps it from being public-service announcement dry. And that guitar riff almost seems taunting, as if Richards was getting in his commentary, implying that the supposedly upright housewives of the world were every bit as debauched as he was supposed to be. In any case, this is an extremely intelligent song, and that’s a characteristic for which the band doesn’t get enough credit even though they have it in spades.

2. “Under My Thumb”- Here’s what I mean about a song being able to overcome nasty sentiments. You can tolerate the narrator’s basking in his dehumanizing triumph over a female because the music keeps distracting you from it. Anyway when you look at the lyrics, it’s more a comeuppance thing than the guy just doing it for meanness sake. Jones’ chirping marimba carries with it both mystery and mirth, while Richards’ dirties it up with some fuzzy guitar. That groove is pure silk (kudos to Bill Wyman’s bass work for that), and Jagger’s panting at the end is improvisational magic.

1. “Paint It Black” (US Album)- Somewhere in a Turkish hovel sits Jagger asking for complete darkness while Jones and Richards flicker away stone-faced behind him. Wyman fattened up the bottom end by pounding on the organ pedals and Watts plays as if somebody’s chasing him. This is the band at their high-drama best, expounding upon and embracing the world’s general crappiness instead of running scared from it. In the midst of the technicolor 60’s, the sentiment was about as far from norm as you could get. But they were right, you know. All that day-glo stuff can sound dated but this downer anthem still singes the eardrums. Comma or no comma.

(E-mail me at countdownkid@hotmail.com or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. For more on the Stones, check out my new book Counting Down The Rolling Stones: Their 100 Finest Songs, available in November. You can preorder it at the link below.)

http://www.amazon.com/Counting-Down-The-Rolling-Stones/dp/1442254467

 

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