The Rolling Stones, “Blue & Lonesome” (Interscope)
It shouldn’t be a surprise, really, but still it’s a bit startling to hear just how well the Rolling Stones can play the blues. Strip away the glitz, the oversized stages and the pyrotechnics, and you’re left with two terrific guitarists, a frontman who can play an exuberant harp — and a drummer named Charlie Watts. No wonder “Blue & Lonesome” sounds so solid.
Their first studio album in more than a decade has the simplest of concepts: Put the guys in a studio for three days, give them a songbook heavy on Jimmy Reed, Willie Dixon and Howlin’ Wolf, and play it live, without overdubs. The album is noteworthy for what it is not: It’s not a museum piece, not a tribute album, not an exercise in nostalgia, even if at times the sound harkens back to the blues covers that filled the Stones’ first few albums.
In those early days, they always seemed to be trying to sound like somebody: Chuck Berry here, Muddy Waters there, and the songs, though undeniably cool, had a rushed, frenzied feel. The Stones were trying to prove their Delta authenticity, not an easy task for five English kids. Fifty-plus years later, they aren’t trying to sound like anybody but themselves. The songs have grown, expanded, been given room to breathe, and the playing is remarkably self-assured and comfortable.
Mick Jagger’s voice is deeper and raspier now, and he’s not straining for effect. His blues harp playing, neglected for decades, is effective and convincing. The guitars take center stage, showing Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood at their expressive best, with Eric Clapton sitting in on two tracks.
The Stones’ early passion for the blues helped introduce a young white audience to the established giants of the Chicago blues scene. Songs like “Little Rain” and “Hoo Doo Blues” show the Stones can continue the tradition on their own.
The Weeknd, “Starboy” (Universal Republic Records)
“Starboy,” The Weeknd’s latest release, sees the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter picking up where he left off from 2015’s surprisingly pop-friendly “Beauty Behind the Madness.”
The Weeknd has expanded his vocal range — almost unrecognizably so on the opening to “Secrets” — and his sound and lyrics push the envelope in areas where he’s previously dabbled. He reconnects with previous collaborators, including hit-maker Max Martin, whose hand in 2015’s “Can’t Feel My Face” made it a wedding-DJ favorite.
And while that sort of crossover sound may have alienated fans of the languishing, spacey, pill-and-alcohol drenched vibe of the singer’s previous releases, he retains his identity as the somewhat self-absorbed, unreliable rock star and cruel lover he has long represented himself to be. As he sings on “Reminder”: “I am not a Teen Choice.”
He’s a flawed man, dealing with equally flawed partners, as on the smoothed-out “Attention.” And even in the middle of an encounter on the slinky “Ordinary Life,” his outlook is bleak: “Like I’m James Dean, I’mma die when I’m young,” he sings.
The Weeknd has never come off like a traditional R&B guy, but he comes close to it on the sexy “True Colors,” which counts Benny Blanco and Jake One among its producers. Old pal Lana Del Rey is nothing short of lovely on “Stargirl Interlude,” precisely the kind of interlude worth mentioning.
The Weeknd sings about going from “homeless to Forbes list” on “Sidewalks,” but the collaboration with fellow star Kendrick Lamar is nothing special. Ditto for “All I Know” with Future.
The Daft Punk-assisted “I Feel It Coming” is nothing you’d expect, from the sappy lyrics to the sweet instrumentation. And while it doesn’t feel like the perfect fit for The Weeknd, there’s a sense that “Starboy” could be going somewhere with this. (AP)
By Gregory Katz