Good ‘Voodoo’ or Lounge-Lizard Time? : ***; THE ROLLING STONES, “Voodoo Lounge” (<i> Virgin</i> ) : THE REVIEW : Getting back to basics, the Stones again sound relaxed and enthused

<i> Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic</i>

In its first studio album in five years, the No. 1 or No. 2 greatest band ever in rock wastes no time in trying to start us up. Almost immediately in the opening track, you hear the sensual guitar swagger that has been the Rolling Stones’ trademark for 30 years.

Even the theme of the song, “Love Is Strong,” is quintessential Stones flirtation. Coos Mick Jagger: A glimpse of you was all it took / A stranger’s glance it got me hooked .

The band’s galloping, drum-driven rhythm is just as quickly evident on the next two songs--both of which have titles with the inviting, call-to-action imagery long favored by the band: “You Got Me Rocking” and “Sparks Will Fly.”

No question about it: The Stones--almost two dozen albums down the line and with bassist Darryl Jones replacing Bill Wyman--can still do the Stones better than anyone.

Nothing here is likely to give fans who grew up with the British band in the ‘60s and ‘70s the same kind of lasting emotional rush as the recordings, from “Satisfaction” to “Honky Tonk Women,” that defined the renegade side of blues-flavored rock ‘n’ roll.

No way, either, are the Stones going to compete with Pearl Jam or Nine Inch Nails in trying to examine the alienation and anger of today’s teens and twenty-somethings.


But social introspection has never been the band’s primary interest or weapon.

Ever since the ‘60s, the debate over whether the Stones are the greatest rock band ever has hinged largely on whether you want music with the stamp of artistic ambition and statement (the Beatles) or whether you want it to simply rock and roll you (the Stones).

For longtime fans who opt for the latter, the new album’s basic, straightforward approach should evoke memories of the band’s classic days more positively than anything the Stones have delivered since “Tattoo You” 13 years ago.

For today’s MTV crowd who may be fuzzy on their Stones history, the album has more inviting, blues-rock authenticity than anything they have heard in recent years from such Stones-influenced groups as Aerosmith, the Black Crowes and Primal Scream.

There are echoes in “Out of Tears” of the Stones’ early love for such R&B; torch songs as “Time Is on My Side,” while the harpsichord shading of “Lady Jane” is saluted in “New Faces.” The latter is a tale of a woman being tempted by a younger man--the reversal of common male rock obsession.

The male roving eye does surface in “Brand New Car,” which features a wickedly lecherous vocal by Jagger. On the country-flavored “The Worst,” Richards sings in a dark, menacing tone that is equally evocative.

“Sweethearts Forever” suggests a Drifters-era R&B; innocence, while “Blinded by Rainbows” is a reflection on terrorism that is the album’s most ambitious moment.

For most of the 62-minute journey (long enough in the old vinyl days for this to be a double album), the band sounds more comfortable than it has in years.

Every superstar act, from Michael Jackson to Prince ( especially Michael Jackson and Prince) reaches a point where the artist’s energy shifts from making challenging music to maintaining cash flow. The goal is no longer music that is purposeful or heartfelt, but that will work in the marketplace.

Over the years, the Stones, heaven knows, have been guilty of turning out albums that can be more easily described as product than passion. Some rock purists have even argued that the Stones should have thrown in the towel back in 1970 when the Beatles did.

But the Stones’ history belittles that suggestion. Three of the band’s most stirring works came in the ‘70s: “Sticky Fingers,” “Some Girls” and the landmark “Exile on Main Street.” (All three have just been re-released in remastered CD collections by Virgin Records,along with five others from the group’s Atlantic and Columbia days).

Despite moments in “Voodoo Lounge” when the band falls too predictably within its long-established boundaries, the band shows generally that it still has the desire and skills to disarm us in sometimes subtle and surprising ways. For the first time in ages, you wish that you could have been in the studio watching the whole thing go down.*