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Review: The Rolling Stones’ new blues album is an amplified death wheeze. And it rules

Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones perform during October’s Desert Trip festival in Indio.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Pop Music Critic

The Rolling Stones claim they made their new blues album in three days — which is remarkable since it sounds like they couldn’t have spent more than two.

Easily their rawest recording in decades, “Blue & Lonesome” finds the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers happily reconnecting with the unvarnished Chicago blues that inspired the late Brian Jones to form the band in 1962.

Back then, the Stones learned to play — and to pose — emulating records they heard by artists like Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters. Now, on a 12-track album of covers they cut together in one room in real time, they’re looking back at those pioneers, paying tribute to the music that launched them toward superstardom.

The Stones being the Stones, of course, they’re also paying tribute to themselves. Implicit in “Blue & Lonesome” is the idea that these 70-something veterans have stuck around longer than their idols did; the album presents the Stones not as fresh-faced acolytes of the gnarled bluesmen but as seasoned peers.

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The Rolling Stones talk going home to the blues with ‘Blue & Lonesome’ »

Indeed, what strikes you after you get used to hearing the band in such a stripped-down fashion is how old the musicians sound. That’s a quality the Stones have typically run from in the studio (where they’re known for recruiting younger collaborators to punch up new songs) and onstage (where Mick Jagger still does loads of actual running).

Performing at October’s classic-rock Desert Trip festival in Indio, the singer was the first to sprint down a lengthy catwalk that Bob Dylan and Neil Young appeared not even to notice.

Here, though, Jagger emphasizes the cracks in his voice — the wavering tone and the frayed edges — to give the sense of a guy who’s been thoroughly beat up by life.

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“You put poison in my coffee instead of milk or cream,” he moans in Howlin’ Wolf’s “Commit a Crime,” and though the narrator clearly survived his lover’s attack, he hardly emerged unscathed.

Jagger puts across the same weathered vibe on harmonica, which he takes up often on “Blue & Lonesome,” most memorably in the dirge-like title track written by Little Walter. The sound here is basically an amplified death wheeze.

On guitars, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood deconstruct familiar riffs, breaking them down into jagged shards, as in a snarling rendition of “All of Your Love,” originally recorded by Magic Sam, and Lightnin’ Slim’s “Hoo Doo Blues,” in which one of them slashes at a single note for most of the song.

This isn’t a guitar-hero record with complicated, athletic soloing meant to showcase hard-won technique. Which isn’t to say the playing is unimpressive; it’s often amazing.

But what the Stones are going for here is texture — a kind of ruined virility — and that’s true even when Eric Clapton, a.k.a. Mr. Technique, shows up for two songs, including Willie Dixon’s creeping “I Can’t Quit You Baby.” (Among the other tunes the band does are Dixon’s “Just Like I Treat You,” with a ragged beat from Charlie Watts, and the haunted “Little Rain” by Jimmy Reed.)

Sometimes that texture serves as scenery for some pretty rich theater. In “Everybody Knows About My Good Thing,” for instance, Jagger goes on for a while about how he has to call his plumber — something the real-life Mick Jagger surely hasn’t done in the last half-century.

And who among us believes this master manipulator has allowed anyone to take advantage of him recently, as the singer insists in Little Walter’s “Just Your Fool”?

But role play has been Jagger’s specialty since the beginning (when he was playing this very part). So best not to take the decrepitude too seriously. He and the Stones will be back with another record, maybe one where they go EDM.

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Funny thing is, it probably won’t sound this alive.

Twitter: @mikaelwood

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