Rock of Ages On their new releases, will the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan trudge old paths or strike out in new directions?

September 30, 1997|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

As the rock stars of the '60s continue their careers into the '90s, the question arises: Is time really on their side?

Both Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones have new albums out today, and that's news in a way that today's other releases -- for instance, the reunion albums by Jane's Addiction and EPMD -- could never be. Even people who rarely buy albums become curious when stars of this magnitude come out.

That's one of the ways in which time is on their side. Having 30-odd years of pop music history behind you definitely helps when it comes to name recognition. Sean "Puffy" Combs may have ruled the charts this year with an awesome string of No. 1 singles, but not even his million-sellers can quite dispel the fact that large chunks of America (e.g., white people over 25) have no idea who he is.

But who doesn't know Dylan or the Stones? Their music, their mythos, even their performance quirks are basic knowledge in popular culture. Strap on a guitar and harmonica rack and wheeze, " and the times, they are a-changin'," and even the most inept performance will be recognized as a Dylan impression. Likewise, draw a big pair of lips with a tongue lolling out next to a death's head holding a guitar, and anybody would recognize the sketch as a caricature of the Stones.

But that's where time begins to work against these living legends. Because our image of them is so inextricably linked to the past -- to "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Satisfaction," to "Blonde on Blonde" and "Exile on Main St." -- it's hard to think of their music as having much to do with the present. And that puts these acts in the unenviable position of having to choose between keeping the old sound and seeming stodgy, or keeping up with the times and possibly looking silly.

To their credit, both Dylan and the Stones have taken the latter course, albeit with mixed results. Dylan's make-over is by far the more radical, yet even as he revises his recorded sound, his songwriting remains grounded in folk tradition.

Meanwhile, the Stones maintain their reputation for keeping up with the latest rock trends but end up coming across as something less than with-it.

Stones don't sizzle

When word got out that the Rolling Stones were working with the Dust Brothers -- the ultra-hip L.A. production team who have help shaped Beck's "Odelay" and Hanson's "Mmm-Bop" -- the immediate assumption was that the band was desperate to keep up with the times. And frankly, imagining the Stones trying to pull an "Odelay" was uncomfortably like imagining grandma in hot pants.

Fortunately, "Bridges to Babylon" (Virgin 7243-8-44712, arriving in stores today) isn't as embarrassing as all that. Instead of offering hip-hop-inflected electrofunk or some equally awkward attempt at modernity, it sounds like a standard-issue Stones album.

It's just not a particularly good one, is all.

Don't take that to mean the album's a stinker, because it's not. Truth is, these guys have too much craft to make a genuinely bad album. Nor is "Bridges to Babylon" all that bad, boasting strong hooks, lots of raw, bluesy groove and even a quotable lyric or two.

The problem is what the album lacks. Songs, for starters. "Has Anybody Seen My Baby," the first single, is hardly a classic piece of writing, but it's by far the album's strongest song. So what if the chorus is so similar to k.d. lang's "Constant Craving" that the band had to grant her a writer's credit? At least there's an equally strong verse to go with it, which is more than can be said for "Already Over Me," a five-and-a-half-minute tune that includes about four minutes of chorus.

Also missing in action are the classic rhythm guitar licks we've come to expect from Keith Richards. In some cases, the lack of guitar is a function of the arrangement, as with "Might As Well Get Juiced," a thumping, synth-heavy workout that longs to seem modern but ends up sounding like "Eliminator"-period Z.Z. Top.

More often than not, the problem is mere lack of imagination. "Lowdown" is just one more attempt to reconfigure the "Start Me Up" riff; "Too Tight" is built around a bad-imitation Husker Du riff (Husker Du?!?); while the grungy "Gunface" offers little more than skanking after-beats -- hardly the most memorable of hooks.

Worst of all is the sad spectacle of rock stars refusing to act their age. It's bad enough watching Mick Jagger chase after some 20-ish model in the video for "Has Anybody Seen My Baby" -- what, the title should be taken literally? -- but it's especially depressing to hear the whole band chase so shamelessly after younger listeners. Did someone tell them that ska was in, and that it would thus be a good idea to include a soggy piece of fake bluebeat like "You Don't Have To Mean It"?

Or is that just another unexpectedly literal title?

Daring new Dylan

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