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In the Groove: Record Review - ‘Steel Wheels’

August 29, 1989

Undated (AP) _ ″Steel Wheels″ (CBS) - The Rolling Stones

″There’s the sun, the moon, the trees and the Rolling Stones,″ Keith Richards says in describing the longevity that is the secret to this band’s success.

The Stones’ new album, ″Steel Wheels,″ is as reassuring - and predictable - as the sun and the moon.

The Rolling Stones, whose raunchy, guitar-based sound is the most instantly identifiable signature in rock music, sound simply terrific. Richards and Ron Woods’ guitar playing is exemplary, and the rhythm section of Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman sounds inspired. Even Mick Jagger, for all his whining about the need to do solo work, is undeniably more at home here than anywhere else.

Thankfully, the Stones vary the output enough to keep ″Steel Wheels″ from lapsing into the boredom of the band’s more recent records, particularly ″Dirty Work.″ The 12-song album contains three ballads, a blues song and the exotic sounding ″Continental Drift,″ which feature Moroccan drummers.

Where the Stones stumble is in the lyrics. They rarely rise above the pedestrian and are occasionally insipid.

For every rare, offhand funny lyric (″So get off the fence, it’s creasing your butt″), there’s about a dozen nagging cliches. After 34 albums, the Stones should know enough to avoid such lines as, ″I can feel your tongue on mine, silky smooth like wine. I’m living with these memories, that’s all that’s left of you and me.″

Jagger’s yowl, which renders much of the words indistinguishable anyway, is the signal that words aren’t the most important thing for this band.

The individual cuts: The opening ″Sad Sad Sad″ is a rocker in the classic Stones mold. The single ″Mixed Emotions″ is most interesting for armchair psychologists who want to apply the line ″you’re not the only one with mixed emotions″ to the recent feuding between Mick and Keith.

″Terrifying″ is a series of animal metaphors attached to a beat that recalls the 1970s ″Hot Stuff.″ ″Hold on to Your Hat″ is the sort of angry, ″get out of my life, witch,″ song that the Stones have been writing too much of lately, though Watts makes this tune with a strong shuffle beat.

″Blinded by Love″ is a pleasing country ballad that’s sort of a cross between ″Lady Jane″ and ″Faraway Eyes.″

″Rock and a Hard Place,″ with horns integrated into the traditional rock sound, is one of those songs that sound better if you don’t pay attention to the lyrics. ″Put on a kind face″ is Jagger’s brief advice for such problems as human rights, war and the homeless.

Both of Richards’ lead vocals, ″Can’t Be Seen″ and ″Slipping Away″ are somewhat slight. Jagger’s ballad, ″Almost Hear You Sigh,″ is, again, lyrically problematic but pleasant sounding.

″Continental Drift,″ with the raucous Master Musicians of Jajouka, is the kind of strange experimentation that shows how the Stones are still better, when they want to be, than the legions of bands that try to imitate them.

The verdict: ″Steel Wheels″ is no masterpiece, but it gives more evidence why the Rolling Stones are Hall of Fame members.

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