CK Retro Review: Let It Bleed by The Rolling StonesPosted: October 29, 2015
In terms of their personnel, the Rolling Stones were in a bit of turmoil in 1969, with Brian Jones on his way out and Mick Taylor on his way in. You’d never know it musically though, as the album they released at the end of that year, entitled Let It Bleed, found them building upon the stunning highs they reached on Beggars Banquet. Keith Richards thrived in his role as unquestioned musical leader, putting his own gritty spin on folk, blues, gospel, and country. Mick Jagger rose to that standard with tough, clear-eyed lyrics attuned to the tumult of the times. There’s not a clunker to be found, plus you’d be hard-pressed to find another rock album with bookends as good as this one. (Unless you consider the Stones own catalog, where you can makes a case for two or other three albums.) Here is a song-by-song review:
9. “Country Honk”- This is the way it was intended to sound, as a kind of rambling, rocking-chair country folk number. As such, it’s sweet and pleasant, with Byron Berline’s fiddle the perfect finishing touch. This take hides some of the more lascivious elements of the lyrics, but, then again, those are a lot of fun.
8. “Midnight Rambler”- I’ve always been more intrigued by the music than the lyrics, which have their cinematic moments but don’t add up to much more than a bogeyman story. The Stones had clearly learned a lot about how to extend a jam since they had tried it a few years earlier with the interminable “I’m Goin’ Home.” Jagger’s contribution here is more of a musical one, his voice making more impact as another instrument in the mix than with anything he’s trying to communicate. Richards is a force of nature on this song, intermingling electric and slide parts and mimicking the slow creep and terrifying pounce of a murderer.
7. “Let It Bleed”- Ian Stewart’s pogoing piano really steps to the fore, embodying the welcoming, warm nature of this song. Those are virtues Jagger sometimes has trouble pulling off, and the cocky accent he lays on the chorus doesn’t help. Luckily Richards comes in with harmonies to up the camaraderie factor. The lyrics seem to be saying that suffering is inevitable, which makes them consistent with the album’s message. The difference here is succor is offered in the guise of, to borrow a term from a recent song by Willie and Merle, an unfair weather friend. “Get it on, rider”: Pretty good advice.
6. “You Got The Silver”- Richards finally gets his vocal solo for an entire song; there’s a version out there with Mick taking the lead and you can tell they made the right choice when you compare the two. The vulnerability and tenderness seeping out from the bravado is the stance Keith would use on ballads for years to come, and it works nine times out ten. The girl gets all the precious metal and the unbroken heart, but Richards gets the song, so he wins in my book.
5. “Love In Vain”- The Stones do proper honor to the guy who in a lot of ways started it all by refusing to simply copy him. Instead they slow down Robert Johnson’s tale of lost love and leaving trains to wring out every last piece of bottomless sorrow, while prettying it up a bit as well courtesy of Ry Cooder’s mandolin. Jagger plays it straight and delivers an outstanding performance; good thing or Keith might have popped him one.
4. “Live With Me”- This is Mick Taylor’s first appearance on record with the band, although he takes a back seat to other elements, notably Richards’ insinuatingly melodic bass line and Bobby Keys, also making his Stones’ debut, wailing through the cacophony on sax. The thrust here is unstoppable, a locomotive that’s likely only going to throw you off the second you manage to leap on. Jagger paints an often hilarious portrait of a household not exactly fit for Norman Rockwell, and it ends up sounding like the Stones’ rock and roll circus if it ever settled down for a spell instead of traveling the world. In other words, the aural equivalent of Nellcote.
3. “Monkey Man”- Around this time in their career, it seems like just about every Stones song had an iconic opening. Here it’s the icy vibraphone played by Bill Wyman setting the tone for the main groove to come in and clear the air in unforgettable fashion. From there chunky guitars and Charlie Watts’ funky beat set the tone for Jagger to get all self-referential on us. He stretches the trials and tribulations of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” to comical proportions, but his narrator sounds OK with it all as long as he has his monkey woman by his side. Funny words set to music that’s deadly serious, and every second of it thrills.
2. “Gimme Shelter”- Mostly Richards’ baby, inspired by a literal storm he that he sat watching that somehow evoked in him the figurative storm enveloping the world. Jimmy Miller’s production leaves ample space for everything to hit home, from Richard’s spooky, dawn-in-the-jungle open to Jagger’s strangled harmonica bleats to his own use of the scraper to conjure the exotic. Watts keeps everything hurtling straight unto the breach, while Jagger and Merry Clayton make the transitions from war to rape and murder to love and kisses seem as natural as day turning to night. And at its heart, amidst all other trappings, it’s a blues, as elemental and indomitable as any of their idols ever could have produced.
1.”You Can’t Always Get What You Want”- All the ideas worked for them around this time, even the silly-on-paper ones. A kids choir singing about a drug-addled socialite? Hire ’em. Al Kooper playing the French Horn? Get him in here. Some congas and maracas leading up to gospel exultation? Sounds great. The end of the decade brought out the contemplative side of Jagger, which he expressed in typically streetwise fashion. Everybody in the verses seems doomed, but the refrain, cosmically wise in its simplicity, addresses his audience, pleading with them to realize that the consolation prize is a kind of grace we should all be so lucky to accept.
(Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org 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, coming out in November and available for preorder today via the link below.)