Album reviews: The Rolling Stones - Blue & Lonesome, The Weeknd - Starboy, Peter Doherty - Hamburg Demonstrations and more

Also Bob Dylan, Hilma Nikolaisen and Gavin Bryars

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The Independent Culture

The Rolling Stones, Blue & Lonesome

★★★★☆

Download this: Just Your Fool; Commit A Crime; I Gotta Go; Little Rain; Just Like I Treat You

Usually, a covers album suggests the papering-over of writers’ block; but in the case of Blue & Lonesome, the Stones’ first new studio album in more than a decade, it’s pretty substantial paper, inscribed with the musical code that first prompted them to pick up guitars and adopt the R&B stylings of an alien culture.

Featuring songs first heard via Chicago bluesmen like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters’ blues-harp virtuoso Little Walter, it’s as enjoyable and engaged as the band have seemed in quite some time. But it’s not some kind of midlife crisis attempt to regain lost youth: where the Stones’ ‘60s R&B transformed the hard-bitten complaints and lusts of mistreated old geezers to embody the sleek desires of arty young chaps, the performances on Blue & Lonesome reflect a worldliness akin to those original mentors. Okay, so they may be considerably better off, materially; but the emotional scars accrued with the passage of time are not that different. So when Mick Jagger fulminates, in Howlin’ Wolf’s “Commit A Crime”, about “the evilest woman that I ever seen”, there’s a fund of spite and recrimination behind his delivery, while the guitar riff replaces Hubert Sumlin’s poised finger-vibrato with a deeper, darker threat.

At the most basic level, there are some great grooves here, from Little Walter covers like the chuntering boogie “Just Your Fool” and railroad shuffle “I Gotta Go”, to the jaunty take on Eddie Taylor’s “Ride ‘Em On Down”, all recorded with a raw, granulated tone that emulates the sound of the old Chess and Vee-Jay records on which the Stones were raised. Charlie Watts drives things along at a smart clip, and both Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood bring their most feral licks. Eric Clapton guests on a couple of tracks, but his spindly, precise lines on “I Can’t Quit You Baby” merely demonstrate how unsuited his serious, studied approach would have been for the Stones back when they were looking for another guitarist.

But what impresses most about Blue & Lonesome is Mick Jagger, who really animates these songs, with his trembling, almost tearful delivery of “All Of Your Love” and the wryly sardonic tone he brings to bitter metaphors like “Call the plumber, darlin’/Must be a leak in my drain”. His harmonica playing, too, is superb throughout, ably reflecting the style of each mentor, from feverish wailing on Little Walter’s “I Gotta Go” to the high, fluting tone adopted for Jimmy Reed’s “Little Rain”. Clearly, he wasn’t just twiddling his thumbs whilst Keith was learning his blues licks way back when.

What were the best albums of 2016?

The Weeknd, Starboy

★★★☆☆

Download this: Starboy; I Feel It Coming; Party Monster

Like Eminem and Kanye West, Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye capitalises on his lack of social graces, chronicling his unrepentant amoralism in songs like the cokehead plaint “Can’t Feel My Face”. He continues unabated and autotuned here, occasionally hitting the target (himself) full in the face he can’t feel, as with his evocation of drunken lust in “Party Monster”, a dizzy swirl of vocal effects in search of a screw. In “Reminder”, he’s a borderline stalker, promising to always be around; but then in the very next track, “Rockin’”, with no discernible trace of irony he’s complaining that “I just seem to get the ones that always want to stay”. Doh! His guests include Lana Del Rey, whose affectless manner makes her a perfect match for him; though the best grooves here come courtesy of Daft Punk, bookending the album with the scudding title track and Michael Jackson homage “I Feel It Coming”.

Bob Dylan, The Real Royal Albert Hall 1966 Concert

★★★★★

Download this: Visions Of Johanna; Just Like A Woman; Tell Me, Momma; Ballad Of A Thin Man; Like A Rolling Stone

Bootleg misattribution for years confused this concert with the “Judas!” appearance at Manchester Free Trade Hall: a legend may have been born, but this is by far the better show. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine how some found these dashing, theatrical performances so objectionable – particularly given Dylan’s “electric” style was already well established. Or, as he dismisses audience catcalls here, “These are all protest songs now, come on!”. There’s an engaging punch and roll to The Hawks’ barn-burning accompaniment, with Robbie Robertson’s haunting guitar on the intro to “Ballad Of A Thin Man” particularly effective, a harbinger of unease full of shadowy portent. And what’s often overlooked in accounts of the shows is how gripping was Dylan’s opening set of solo acoustic pieces, his delivery shifting subtly to bring out the supple nuances of songs such as “Just Like A Woman” and the masterpiece “Visions Of Johanna”.

Ebbot Lundberg & The Indigo Children, For The Ages to Come

★★★★☆

Download this: For The Ages to Come; In Subliminal Clouds; Beneath The Winding Waterway; Don’t Blow Your Mind

Former Soundtrack Of Our Lives frontman Ebbot Lundberg may have changed musical forces since 2002’s monumental Behind The Music, teaming up here with youthful adherents The Indigo Children, but his mindset remains focused on the same throwback hippie concerns. Tracks like “Backdrop People” and “Don’t Blow Your Mind” feature impassioned calls to “raise consciousness at heart” chanted over brash, miasmic rock grooves that recall SF Sorrow-era Pretty Things, while the more whimsical interests of “In Subliminal Clouds” and “Beneath The Winding Waterway” (“a halo of flaming pies”, anyone?) are more reminiscent of The Byrds in full psychedelic flight, with folksy guitars, strings and organ drones. Best of all is the title track, where Lundberg’s philosophical musings are set to an expanding psych-folk sound that gradually accretes organ, drums, guitars, horns, synth and sitar; a glorious musical manifesto “shielded from shadows of all past mistakes”.

Peter Doherty, Hamburg Demonstrations

★★★☆☆

Download this: I Don’t Love Anyone (But You’re Not Just Anyone); Flags From The Old Regime; Hell To Pay At the Gates Of Heaven

“All aboard for Armageddon,” sings Pete Doherty in “Hell To Pay At the Gates Of Heaven”, his ramshackle, rollicking invitation positing guitar against gun – a substitution of pen for sword that suits his bohemian manner on Hamburg Demonstrations. Musically, it’s an odd mix of ambition and disorder, with Doherty’s familiar raggedy-ass rock tempered with poignant moments. At one extreme, “Down For The Outing” is like a sluggish, drunken tango with heroically detuned guitar, and “A Spy In The House Of Love” collapses into disarray. But elsewhere, there’s a wistful tinge to his Amy Winehouse tribute “Flags From The Old Regime”, which drifts apart into wisps of guitar and finally just Doherty’s voice. But the most serviceable piece here is “I Don’t Love Anyone (But You’re Not Just Anyone)”, the appealing punk-pop single balanced by a more reflective second version built on violin, vibes and electric piano.

Hilma Nikolaisen, Puzzler

★★★☆☆

Download this: Hermitage; Two Three Four Five; Dubious Dubious

Like Ebbot Lundberg, Hilma Nikolaisen is another Scandinavian psych-pop veteran forging a new path – in her case, following a stint playing bass in her brother Emil’s drone-rock titans Serena-Maneesh. “Hermitage”, the opening track of this solo debut, is a wondrous thing, a sublime slice of expansive guitar pop, punched along by her stalking bassline as she advises, “I’m counting on you counting on yourselves”. Over eight minutes, it accrues further layers of twinkling guitars and harmonies, building to a climactic swirl of juddering vibrato noise. “Two Three Four Five”, which follows, employs another counting image – “Nobody’s counting, but I can’t count on you” – over a miasmic pop arrangement whose rushing, shoegazey textures slip into psychedelia. Sadly, things decline from that point, though Nikolaisen’s usually good for a lyrical twist such as the “come on, come encore” gambit of “On and On and On”.

Gavin Bryars, The Fifth Century

★★★★☆

Download this: The Fifth Century

Gavin Bryars’ first choral work in several decades features his settings of texts by Thomas Traherne, an obscure 17th century mystic and poet. Traherne’s Centuries Of Meditations comprises intriguing musings upon space, time and infinity which seem to anticipate Einstein in references to “everlasting expansion” and notions such as “the place wherein the world standeth, were it all annihilated, would still remain” – albeit resolved, in Traherne’s case, within a devotional religious, rather than speculative scientific, system. Bryars’ settings are sung by the 30-voice choir The Crossing, accompanied by the Prism Saxophone Quartet, the latter’s tones used both as section prologues and threaded alongside the voices, their cycling lines serving as minimalist stitches sewing together a vocal tapestry. It’s a beautiful, meditative piece, which with its eliding vocal parts, long reed tones and mystical character, shares spiritual and musical affinities with John Tavener’s late choral works.

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