"DIRTY WORK." The Rolling Stones. Columbia.

The good news is that the Rolling Stones aren't mellowing out. The bad news is that the Rolling Stones aren't mellowing out.

If that's a little on the confusing side, consider the pluses and minuses of an outfit with a two-decade-plus tenure and a rep as "the world's greatest rock 'n' roll band" that is still willing to forgo possible hits and sidestep advancing technology in the service of tough, fast, hard-bitten, raunchy guitar music.

"World's greatest rock 'n' roll band" isn't enough for them; these guys want to be the world's greatest garage band, and that much is endearing. Jagger, Richards and the boys act and play these days as if they feel like they have something to prove--and they do, of course, at this stage in the game.

But it's hard to escape nostalgia for the Stones' confident middle period, when they'd already made it and hadn't yet felt the need to prove that they hadn't lost it. The presumably live-in-the-studio grooves on "Dirty Work" (which arrives in stores this week) are often sloppy and furious in a likable sort of way, and yes, they can still keep pace with the young and poor 'uns, but there's not much going on in the way of songs on the album. It's all sound and fury signifying bluffing.

The band is working with an outside producer--Steve Lillywhite--for the first time since the early '70s, and the guitars do sometimes sound a little sharper and less muddy than they have on the recent records. Lillywhite's hand can be heard in a few songs that sound mixed with radio play in mind ("One Hit to the Body," "Winning Ugly"), but most of the tracks are cut from the same hard, fast and loose cloth that's grown so wearisome in the post-"Some Girls" era.

Other than the day-glo outfits the band models on the cover, about the only thing really remarkable about "Dirty Work" is the way it doesn't live up to its title--that is, the lack of outrageous feminist-baiting. "Too Rude" is the one track that trashes a female figure, but even it seems rather innocuous within its meandering reggae dub context.

If the album seems incapable of offending anyone, it rarely builds up any recognizably human good will, either, until the boozy closeout, "Sleep Tonight." In this tender ballad of weary resignation, Keith Richards sings regretfully to a woman who's grown distant from him ("They robbed you of your dignity / They even stole your heart from me") and then, with surprising lack of bitterness, gently admonishes, "You better get some sleep tonight." It's the first track on the album that feels heartfelt, and, obviously, the last.

Listening to Jagger wrapping his mealy mouth around the rest of these indistinguishable tunes, you might be reminded of the story about Linda Ronstadt getting the words all wrong when she recorded "Tumbling Dice"--and then the smile fades as you realize the unlikeliness of anyone ever wanting to record, let alone get right, any of these new songs.

Moreover, you wonder how long the Stones can go on waiting years between albums that sound like they were thrown together over the course of a couple of weeks. The rough-and-tumble approach was refreshing eight years ago when the Stones needed a second wind, but it's time they started writing again and not just jamming. If this streak keeps up, we may someday need a machete to cut the moss off the group's latter-day oeuvre .

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