Summer break has finally begun at Bethel University, and while that means that I’ve got all sorts of scholarly projects underway, it also means that I can take time for some decidedly unacademic pursuits. Like, say, listening to some of the hundreds of albums that I accumulated in the years before becoming a parent of twins in 2009 and haven’t really had time to enjoy since then.
So as a summer diversion, each installment in this new series (Albums A to Z) will find me reflecting on one album in my collection, starting with the A’s (lots to pick from!) and making my way inexorably to the Z’s (slimmer pickings). In part because I’ll try not to include any single singer or band more than once, what’s picked won’t necessarily be the best album or my favorite album for that letter, just one that I decided to listen to with fresh ears. Which is an important caveat for this inaugural post…
The Rolling Stones, Aftermath (U.S. version)
If (like me) you’re only going to own three Stones albums, you could do a lot worse than Aftermath, Beggars Banquet, and Exile on Main Street. (Not counting the 40 Licks compilation, which was so good, song for song, that it made me rethink my youthful assumption that Beatles/Stones wasn’t much of a rivalry.) But while Aftermath is my third favorite of the three, the ‘B’ section is already too hard to pick from, and I’ve got a more recent ‘E’ that I want to be sure to write about. So Aftermath it is!
While I hadn’t listened to the whole album in years, “Paint It, Black” is one of my favorite Jagger/Richards compositions and comes up in my iTunes rotation pretty frequently. (As noted above, I own the U.S. version of the album. I’m aware that “Paint It” wasn’t on the original British version, but replaced “Mother’s Little Helper” — also a great single — when it came out Stateside.) So that one song had pretty much fixed a few basic ideas in my head about Aftermath, only some of which survive a fresh listen.
First, that it’s most significant as the first Stones album made up of nothing but Jagger/Richards originals, which signals how Keef was bound to supersede Brian Jones.
But second, that Aftermath is nevertheless “the one where Brian plays everything but the kitchen sink.” No disrespect to George Harrison pioneering the move on “Norwegian Wood,” but this is easily the best use of the sitar on a rock recording, and then Jones goes on to add things like marimba and dulcimer to later tracks. And he not only doesn’t embarrass himself but actually enriches enormously what still is basically an electric blues album. (Actually, slight as it is lyrically, one of my favorite tracks on the album is “It’s Not Easy,” which has the most traditional instrumentation of any track on the album and some great Richards licks.) And much as I love that the Stones were starting to embrace country, Jones’ harmonica is the only redeeming feature of “High and Dry,” which has to have the most annoying use of a hi-hat in the recorded history of percussion.
Third, that the album title is meant to be vaguely apocalyptic. Maybe it’s just that I’m a Cold War historian, but I can’t hear a line about everything turning black without thinking of nuclear winter. And in the hands of another band, “Goin’ Home” could be read as eschatological. Except that it’s so long (and unnecessarily, indulgently long) that I still couldn’t make it to The End. (The Stones introduced all sorts of worthy conventions to rock ‘n’ roll; the sprawling blues jam ain’t one of ’em. And how on Earth did “Goin’ Home” seem like a good idea in a world that already had “Desolation Row” in it to show what was possible with epic-length tracks?)
As for the tracks in between the first and the last… Aside from the fact that “Flight 505” suffers the same fate as the one by that number on which Buddy Holly took his last trip, there’s not all that much dread here. So much for that interpretation.
Anyway, listening to the album again I was struck by two things that would never occur if all you heard of Aftermath (U.S.) was the leadoff track:
1. For someone who grew up listening to indie and grunge bands fronted by guys desperate to prove their feminist bona fides, it’s bracing to hear the misogyny in tracks like “Stupid Girl” or the disturbingly catchy “Under My Thumb” (though that song primarily makes me think of Altamont, not sexual politics). Even if the former is really a character study, I can’t imagine how anyone can sing a couplet like “She’s the sickest thing in this world / Well, look at that stupid girl” in public, to a crowd that includes even one woman. Reason #2000 that I could never be Mick Jagger…
2. Great as “Paint It, Black” is, the track I repeated three times was “I Am Waiting,” which alternates verses that pair Jagger’s restrained vocals and Jones’ dulcimer with powerful choruses that serve as yet another example why no one should ever define “folk-rock” by reference to Simon & Garfunkel.
Bonus #1: highlighting this song in iTunes led Apple’s “Genius” feature to suggest the prettiest song ever recorded by the Velvet Underground.
Bonus #2: I suddenly want to watch Rushmore again.
And, listening to it yet again, the second chorus makes me think that perhaps my Aftermath-as-apocalypse reading isn’t so far off — and that Jagger had it within him to be a pretty sensational songwriter:
Stand up coming years And escalation fears Oh, yes we will find out Well, like a withered stone Fears will pierce your bones You'll find out
Release Date: 1966
Top Three Best Track(s): “Paint It, Black”; “Under My Thumb”; “I Am Waiting”
Bottom Three Weakest Track(s): “Going Home” (long enough to fill all three slots)
Other Nominees: U2, Achtung Baby; The Posies, Amazing Disgrace; Soul Asylum, And the Horse They Rode In On; Guns ‘n’ Roses, Appetite for Destruction; Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Armed Forces; R.E.M., Automatic for the People