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October 31, 2004

On '60s rock 'n' roll masterpiece, Stones prove both messianic and satanic

Between the death of Brian Jones and the arrival of Mick Taylor, it was fairly possible that the Rolling Stones' 1969 album Let It Bleed could have been one of their worst. Instead, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards stepped up to the plate, and the result was a crude and bluesy classic that ranks among their top albums.

As far as album openers go, "Gimme Shelter" remains a standard in rock. Richards' ghostly riff provides the backbone of the song, and Merry Clayton lays on her booming vocals to add to Jagger's apocalyptic vision. It's almost as if the song were calling for Altamont, the Bay Area concert that would end in tragedy later that year. And with lyrics like "War, children/It's just a shot away," the song still delivers chills today.

The energy dies in the following song, the Stones' take on prolific bluesman Robert Johnson's "Love in Vain." While it's slow, the song features a very dirty and reflective Jagger with a voice that echoes much of their previous album, Beggar's Banquet. Riding the wave of the British Invasion, it seems as if the Stones wanted to prove to America that they could not only rock harder, but rock harder in traditionally American styles of music.

This sentiment continues on "Country Honk," a country-western version of their single "Honky Tonk Women." A British law prohibited singles from being released on albums unless they were of the "greatest hits" variety, and it's unfortunate, because the original would have been a much better fit with the album. The band improvised, both figuratively and literally, and most of the song sounds like a jam session. Either way, it works.

If there is any album in the Stones catalog that should be considered Keith's, Let It Bleed is it. He proves this throughout the work; his riffs are all solid as he plays almost every type of guitar, but his dexterity is most notable on the fourth track, "Live With Me." Here he takes the idea of the bass to a new level. He also provides the lead vocals on "You Got the Silver," where he tries to come across as Dylan, but doesn't quite pull it off. The song slips up a little, especially lyrically, but no album is without its flaws, right?

In between is the title track, "Let It Bleed," and the harmonica-propelled "Midnight Rambler." The former is one of the band's raunchiest, and features great piano work by Ian "Stu" Stewart. Whether or not the song should have been the namesake of the album is up for debate, but it definitely adds the element of sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll that the Stones are known for. "Midnight Rambler" is pure rock in its simplest form. The song is lyrically and musically minimal and shows just how easy rock can be.

The end of the album stands out as much as the beginning, with the eerie and incoherent "Monkey Man," followed by "You Can't Always Get What You Want." The introduction of "Monkey Man" starts to echo some of the sounds of Motown, but that's eventually shattered with garbled lyrics like, "I'm a cold Italian pizza/I could use a lemon squeezer/Would you do?" There are bits of profundity that break through, like "Well I hope we're not too messianic/Or a trifle too satanic/We love to play the blues." What the song lacks lyrically, it makes up for musically, with Bill Wyman's vibes and Nicky Hopkins' piano forming a melodic yet sinister air.

Finally, only the London Bach Choir could handle the heroic final track, "You Can't Always Get What You Want." Featuring a full choir, a beautiful French horn line, and a pipe organ, the song's message is a great contrast with that of the album's opener. While the piece is based on only two chords (I-IV), it builds from a soft ballad into a full-blown orchestral triumph, and is the perfect climax to a larger-than-life album.

Overall, Let It Bleed falters in very few places and serves as the bridge between Woodstock and Altamont, the two events that defined the music business at the end of the 60s. It was at the beginning of the 70s that the Stones proclaimed themselves the "World's Greatest Rock ‘n' Roll Band", and with albums like Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St. following Let It Bleed, it would be hard to tell them they were wrong.

If you like Jet, Velvet Revolver, the White Stripes, Blur, or the Black Crowes, then you should check out Let It Bleed.