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Saturday, May 28, 2011

Undercover and Dirty Work: No Respect

I can't say I was surprised when the oversized collector's edition CDs of the '70's Stones albums came out that the series ended with 1981's Tattoo You, but I was disappointed.

1983's Undercover is actually a very organic record.  1986's Dirty Work, not so much.  But, 1988's Steel Wheels is the first time that the audience had been kept at distance from their body of work.  The record is too slick from start to finish, as if hearing them through protective filters.  The Stones would never be the same to me again from this album on.  Even Keith's songs on Steel Wheels sounded like leftovers from his solo albums with The X-Pensive Winos, not like the oddball surprises of old.  But then, the past is where such surprises happened for all of the classic rockers anyway.  No blame to be had.  Just simply change ... the world had changed.

When I think of the pleasure of Undercover, it amazes me how cohesive a record it is in sound and mood.  No one talks of it as either a great or weak album.  It just doesn't get the nod of respect that their '70's output gets.

Undercover spawned three videos in "Undercover Of The Night", "She Was Hot", and "Too Much Blood".  All seemed to get plenty of video airplay.  The record certainly seemed to be continuing their legacy at the time, unlike Dirty Work, which seemed like an oddity with its edgy comic strip artwork.  "She Was Hot" was a useless video that actually distracted from the yearning movement of the recorded track.  Most of the tunes on this album fit in well with this style.  Pop drive, but very organic guitars.

"Undercover Of The Night" was the heaviest rotated video.  A continuation of the dance-floor music of "Miss You" and "Emotional Rescue", it carried the extra punch of having a video in the cinematic vein of a Duran Duran video.  In the long run it seems that this type of tune had overstayed its welcome.  But, this certainly didn't stop them from doing one more on the same record.  "Too Much Blood" was surprisingly good considering it was also a dance track.  Unique in its vocal, it tells a gruesome tale in a humorous way, coming off as more direct in its communication to the audience than any spoken-word section before in their canon.

Play "She Was Hot", "Tie You Up", "Wanna Hold You", "Pretty Beat Up", "Too Tough", "All The Way Down", and "It Must Be Hell" in a row and you hear a perfectly melded pastiche.  The Stones would never sound this thin and laid-back again.  The beautiful multi-tracking of voices on "Wanna Hold You" and the powerful beauty of the "She's there when I close my eyes..." section of "All The Way Down" are worth the price of the album alone!  Plus the album ends with the under-appreciated "It Must Be Hell".  Very similar in style to "Soul Survivor" from Exile On Main St. where the song is also the last on the album.  For all the macho posturing, it's a pretty soft album.  One that certainly fits in with the style of albums like Goat's Head Soup, Some Girls, and Emotional Rescue.  Being that it's an album with rock tracks and dance tracks that doesn't alienate the fanbase from what is essentially a classic Stones sound.  Of course, this album doesn't come with the heavy history which is attached to those albums.  So, there's less of a back story to romanticize about, which leaves it a lonely creation.  The next album would be a different creature entirely.

Dirty Work was a big surprise in many ways.  An album with a sound that would not be duplicated again by the band, but one that on paper seemed to follow the blueprint of the albums before ... a couple big pop hits, some throwbacks, and something new.  Only, this time, it was too far from the tree to connect to the typical Stones fan.  In a way, one could say, "It's about time!"  After all, it was 1986.  Time to make something that sounded like the decade they were in!  But, like Wings' Back To The Egg not getting to sink into the consciousness of the record-buying public with a tour after McCartney's drug-bust in Japan, so would be the fate of this collection of songs.

First things first, 1986 was the beginning of a time in the '80's when record companies were trying to sell their artists with the safest singles possible, always choosing a light or ineffectual tune to a hard one.  (This would eventually hurt Aerosmith in a big way.)  On this album, that tune was "Harlem Shuffle".  No matter how well it was performed, it was a true disaster undercutting the artistic merit of the album.  Another song sent out to raise awareness for the album was "One Hit (To The Body).  Pop trash in the vein of disposable tunes of the time, this song both directed people away from the album and drew some closer. Those who were interested, were so probably because of the aggressive lead vocal.  But, that vocal approach was featured on better songs within the album.  The third song to cement the album as a loser was "Winning Ugly".  Quite a pleasant little piece of pop waste, but not a good enough reason to make anyone want to buy the album.

Once inside the album, there was much to be excited about.  As "One Hit (To The Body)" had hinted at, there were edgy/hard songs to be had.  These one-of-a-kind songs, the hardest they would ever sound, were "Fight", "Hold Back", and "Dirty Work".  Nothing this scary had ever risen from a Stones record before.  These songs are worth the price of the record yet again.  But, hey!  Maybe you don't want a new-sounding Stones.  There's still something for you!  Enter "Had It With You".  A great throwback that would be missed by many an old-style Stones fan.  Also, there's more pop in the mode of this new era ... "Back To Zero".  Seemingly silly, but refreshing and tight, it had smart lyrics to save it.  This might have been the first album with the majority of songs containing meaningful lyrics.  Not an album harping on sex, but a new approach for a new era.  But, still, we're talking about the Stones here.  They're not gonna be able to compete with smarter bands of the time, but they did a little more than just entertain with this one.

I guess they could have jumped from Tattoo You straight to Steel Wheels and none of us would have minded.  But, I'm a richer person for having these two albums from them.  Hats off to The Stones and many thanks to the '80's for keeping the flame of experimentation alive that much longer.

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