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The Rolling Stones
Bridges to Babylon
Virgin

In 1994, I listened with a straight face as Mick Jagger and Keith Richards told me that in time, Voodoo Lounge would come to be viewed as one of their best releases ever, maybe even up there with Exile on Main Street (which, they reminded me, was universally panned upon its release). For a while, I even tried to believe that, because I'm a fan, and it's not like I want the Stones to suck.

Now I read Jagger in Rolling Stone saying that, yes, Voodoo Lounge was a disappointment, but Bridges to Babylon, their 24th collection of new material, is hot stuff, honest to God. But damned if I'll be conned by that used-car salesman again. The sad truth is, the Stones haven't made a really good album in 19 years, and they probably aren't capable of it anymore.

Jagger and Richards used to be able to tinker with their basic formula by subsuming other styles and making them their own. One of the reasons 1978's Some Girls is so interesting is that it very much evokes its era, while transcending it at the same time: The Glimmer Twins understood disco ("Miss You") and punk ("Shattered," "Respectable"), and they further showed an ability to turn both into Rolling Stones music. What's more, they were still writing good, memorable songs at the time.

By harsh contrast, it's hard to remember most of the songs on Bridges to Babylon -- even after a half-dozen listens. None speak to the realities of 1997, or even the realities in the Stones' own lives. They could have been written the day before yesterday in the limo on the way to the studio, or they could be C-grade outtakes from sessions in 1964. There's no way to tell, and there's no reason to care.

The CD kicks off with the sort of Stones-by-numbers rocker that filled Voodoo Lounge: "Flip the Switch" rewrites "Start Me Up" musically and lyrically, marrying a familiar, trying-to-be-raunchy guitar riff to some silly teenage metaphors ("Take me up / Baby, I'm ready to go / Switch me up / Baby, I'm ready to go") that sound especially pathetic coming from a man of 54. Next up is "Anybody Seen My Baby," the first single. The Stones have been imitating themselves for nearly two decades now, but this is a new low, a soggy ballad that lifts its hook directly from k.d. lang's "Constant Craving." Indeed, the Stones were so blatant about the thievery that they granted lang co-song-writing credit before her lawyers even phoned them.

Most of Bridges's other tunes fall into one of those two basic molds, with the occasional subtle, but none-too-interesting, twist, and despite the pre-advance hype, the Stones' bids at approximating a '90s aesthetic fall just as flat. "Gunface," produced by Danny Saber (Black Grape), and "Might As Well Get Juiced," produced by the Dust Brothers (Beck, Beastie Boys), are just two more cookie-cutter cock-rock tunes with some studio silliness added on top -- pseudo-electronic drums in the former and an annoying electronic buzz in the latter.

Ironically, Babylon ends with a weepy Richards outing titled "How Can I Stop": "You look at me and I don't know what you see / A reflection maybe of what I wanna be ... How could I stop?" He's singing to a lover, but he might as well be addressing the long-suffering Stones fan, who's sort of like that teary-eyed girl in the movies. She knows that her beloved black stallion is never going to recover from that broken leg, but she just can't bring herself to acknowledge the brutal truth: Sometimes a bullet between the eyes is really the kindest thing. (**)

-- Jim DeRogatis

Bob Dylan
Time Out of Mind
Columbia

There are moments when it seems as though the Bob Dylan we remember -- the man who infused the acoustic with the electric and sparked a revolution, the man whose silences were the stuff of poetry -- never really existed. That Bob Dylan belongs to another time, an idyllic fragment of history when rock and roll promised chaos and beauty; that Bob Dylan is a waxwork figure in a museum in Cleveland, as frozen in vita as Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Elvis.

The Dylan who has been with us since the late 1970s is a whole different brand of Bob: a man who so lost touch with his genius that his best songs lay on the studio floor, a man who so wanted to distance himself from his past he would often turn up his guitar, hide under his hat and mumble his way through immortal songs until even he couldn't recognize them. That Bob Dylan belongs to today, and may his predecessor forever rest in peace.

But don't dismiss Dylan as a ghost just yet; Time Out of Mind, his first complete collection of new songs in seven years, suggests there's still some life in him, still some things he has left to say. The CD begs you to listen to it over and over again; it's that dense a statement, that perfect an imperfection. Imperfect because, too often, Dylan spits out cliches better willed to son Jakob -- "You left me standin' in the doorway cryin'," "You left me standing out in the cold," "I've been wadin' through the high muddy waters" and so on. But perfect because it's able to overcome its lesser moments and reveal a man so burned by love (and life) that he's nothing but a pile of ash.

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