The Rolling Stones
Bridges to Babylon

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

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.

To someone who knows Dylan better as a vestige than as a vital singer/songwriter, Time Out of Mind might well come off as nothing but a record of sad songs, the plaints of a man who's "been hit too hard" by the end of love. Indeed, under producer Daniel Lanois's guidance, Time Out of Mind almost seems to sob, like a lover left for dead. Songs begin out of nowhere and fade into oblivion, with Dylan popping up to spin tales in which tears turn to blood and love turns to dust. But to an acolyte, Time Out of Mind is the record Dylan should have made long ago -- an intimate portrait of a man coming to terms with his age, his legacy, his ability. It isn't just about traveling through the world looking for love; almost every song finds Dylan walking down some dirt road like a vagabond, but one searching for some redemption, some salvation. He sings of wanting to make it into heaven before the gates close. He later sings of "comin' to the end of my way," like a man seeking to make some kind of peace. Then, even later, his voice almost a shadow, he groans that "I don't know how much longer I can wait" and that "the end of time has just begun."

Time Out of Mind would be invaluable for its final track alone, a 16-minute opus titled "Highlands" that begins in a daydream and ends on a crowded street where the people don't recognize the man who's singing. It's a remarkable discourse from someone who has spent the last two decades mumbling into his pillow, at once a declaration of victory and the white flag of surrender. "I feel like a prisoner in a world of mystery," he moans, "I wish someone'd come and push back the clock for me." After so many tossed-off releases -- all those folkie throwdowns and unplugged indiscretions -- Dylan finally spills a little more blood on the tracks. (****)

-- Robert Wilonsky

Jamie Blake
Jamie Blake

Jamie Blake's appealing blend of brains, perspiration and polite rebellion is a few months too late for what could have been a promising second-stage distraction on the Lilith Fair tour. The 21-year-old singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist hails from Chicago, but she came of age in New York City, perfecting her saucy, folk-grrrl rock in Washington Square by day and neighborhood bars by night. By one of those impossible flukes that seem to happen all too regularly in the music industry, someone important at A&M got ahold of her demo tape and signed her on.

While Blake still has a way to go in her quest for sonic self-realization, her eponymous debut is nothing if not aurally arousing. It's the sort of bristling, if flawed, first effort that leaves you a tad disappointed, but hungry and hopeful for the inevitable second try. After being humbled a bit by the endless life lessons that accompany months on the road, it's likely Blake will have a little more to say on the next go-around.

As it is now, Blake advertises her influences a touch too prominently. The fastest tunes wag the coattails of Veruca Salt; the slower ones amble down a well-traveled road paved with heartbreak, self-loathing and the general urgency of adolescence. Blake's husky, assertive vocals betray her debt to the likes of Debbie Harry, Pat Benatar and Stevie Nicks, and for every pretty pop melody and soft-hearted confession, there's a dose of disarming demolition guitar to remind us of Blake's early exposure to cock-metal demigods AC/DC, or a brash, full-throated chorus to validate the assertion that this girl is tougher than she looks. She might not be tough enough quite yet, but still, the seed is planted. It just needs a little time to germinate. And when it does, take cover. (***)

-- Carrie Bell

Jamie Blake performs at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, October 7, at the Hard Rock Cafe.

Elton John
The Big Picture

You've got to hand it to old Reg: Few aging stadium-pop relics have coasted more efficiently on the creative fumes of a career that, for all intents and purposes, was spent ages ago. He and Paul McCartney ought to be sharing a few laughs over a cognac about now (make that a Shirley Temple for the drug-free Elton), seeing as both have been pulling a huge one over on us for going on 20 years.

The Big Picture celebrates the 30-year anniversary of John's song-writing partnership with Bernie Taupin, an on-and-off pairing that, thus far, has resulted in three dozen top 40 singles and a dozen number-one hits worldwide. Some celebration. Picture neatly and dutifully frames everything that's gone wrong with the John/ Taupin enterprise since the mid '70s. A feigned significance courses through the disc's 11 tracks, and a numbing indifference is its unintended effect -- it's nothing short of Novocain for the soul. Fortune cookie sentiments ("You think you win but in the end you lose") and vague twinges of pained midlife insight ("Tell me do I fit in the big picture / Do I have a shot at the big part?") are made sodden by innocuous arrangements, tedious melodies and a crisis-level shortage of hooks.

If you're thinking such formulaic, mid-tempo drudgery resembles a majority of the middlebrow wares John's been hawking since 1976's Blue Moves (which, incidentally, was just re-released), think again. It's worse. Even a fresh coat of studio gloss can't save this junk. Things turn so sour, in fact, that you might well find yourself craving a nibble of the silly naivete that marked Taupin's Old West fantasy phase circa Tumbleweed Connection, back when Elton John could still pen a chorus that clung to the skull's interior much like that new AT&T jingle. Hey, wait a second, that is Elton -- and in fine form, too. (* 1/2)

-- Hobart Rowland

Craig Mack
Operation: Get Down
Street Life/All-American Music

On his second release, Operation: Get Down, Craig Mack, the Peppermint Patty of hip-hop, sounds royally pissed. And why not? Back in 1994, Mack unleashed "Flava in Ya Ear," one of the most influential rap tracks of the decade. Mack's outrageous pitch was just the thing rap producer/performer/label entrepreneur Sean "Puffy" Combs needed to boost his new Bad Boy label. Inevitably, though, a more profitable option came along for Combs (the Notorious B.I.G.), and Mack's golden armor began to rust.

Although Mack said the split between him and Puff Daddy arose due to "creative differences," it appears the pain runs deeper than that. And now Mack, never one to be quiet for long, has used Operation: Get Down to make a cocky declaration of independence. Writing every track and working with various in-the-know producers and engineers (Eric B., Demetrius Shipp and former Fat Boy Prince Markie D), Mack is obviously spitting mad. On "Jockin My Style," he vents his disgust over second-raters who cashed in on his attitude, and on "You" he not-too-delicately rips into Combs and his Bad Boy parvenus.

Those expecting the abrupt sonic-boom feel of his debut CD, Project: Funk Da World, will find that on this effort Mack is all suave funk, toning it down a notch to allow the grooves to marinate in his hard-earned sweat. Low-riding tunes such as "Rap Hangover" and "Sit Back and Relax" slide politely into high-decibel numbers such as "Today's Forecast" and "Style." Get Down does have its share of missteps (following the sly love-letter opener "Can You Still Love Me?" with the groupie gang-bang "What I Need" is no mood enhancer). Still, Mack makes it resoundingly clear on Get Down that when it comes to his music, the future is undoubtedly a one-man show. (*** 1/2)

-- Craig D. Lindsey

CDs rated on a one to five star scale.


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