Album Reviews: Rolling Stones - On Air, Plus More New Releases

By , Contributor
Reviewers tend to overuse the word “historic,” but the Rolling Stones’ On Air deserves that label. Like a pair of Beatles collections that appeared in 1994 and 2013, this set captures a monumental rock band in a crucial formative period via live performances on BBC radio programs. The collection is available as an 18-track single CD, but I’d recommend opting for the “deluxe” two-disc edition, which adds 14 more selections. (You can reportedly also buy a version that combines the expanded album with a coffee-table book that I haven’t seen.)

Though you wouldn’t know it from these well-remastered stereo and mono recordings, which have previously been available only on inferior-sounding bootlegs, the performances here are more than half a century old. The earliest of them come from October 1963, more than half a year before the Stones debuted on the U.S. charts—and only five months after their first BBC audition resulted in what the liner notes say was a “somewhat pompous” rejection letter. At the time, they were living in a low-rent flat in southwest London and had played only a small number of gigs at little clubs.

An October 1965 version of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” one of the last-to-be-recorded tracks included here, sounds much like the single that became the group’s first U.S. chart topper four months earlier. It hints at the innovative direction the group would ultimately take, as does an exuberant “The Last Time.” But these are two of only four originals on these discs, which predominantly feature covers of songs by American blues, R&B, and country artists that the Stones admired.

A half dozen Chuck Berry tunes—including “Roll Over, Beethoven,” “Carol,” “Come On” (the Stones’ first single), “Around and Around,” “Beautiful Delilah,” and “Memphis, Tennessee”—testify to the extent of his influence. Also here are such classics as Bo Diddley’s “Mona,” Hank Snow’s “I’m Moving On,” Ivory Joe Hunter’s “Ain’t That Loving You Baby,” Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” Rufus Thomas’s “Walking the Dog,” and Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On.” The program additionally makes room for “I Wanna Be Your Man,” which John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote and gave to the Stones.

If this isn’t yet the “world’s greatest rock and roll band,” it is certainly already one of the world’s great bar bands. The large number of covers notwithstanding, you can hear an original style emerging on most every track as the Stones combine R&B and blues with the rock sensibility that began to emerge in the early and mid 60s.

You can sense how much they love the material they’re interpreting—a love that continues to this day, as evidenced by 2016’s Blue and Lonesome. Mick Jagger already seems at ease—delighted, actually—in the spotlight, and Keith Richards appears to be fully into his role as the band’s hotshot guitarist. Brian Jones’s slide guitar, Bill Wyman’s bass, and Charlie Watts’s drums all add to the feeling that something revolutionary is going on here. The screaming girls who can be heard on a few of the tracks would get louder in the years to come, but there was already a whole lot to shout about.

BRIEFLY NOTED

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Belle and Sebastian, How to Solve Our Human Problems. This latest Belle and Sebastian album—whose quirky title appears to be lifted from a Buddhist teacher’s 2005 book—combines the contents of three recently issued EPs. All of the Scottish group’s many strengths are on display on these 15 tracks, which range from the melancholy “A Plague on Other Boys” and the synth-pop of “Sweet Dew Lee” to the danceable “We Were Beautiful” and the delicate folk balladry of Sarah Martin’s “Fickle Season” and Stuart Murdoch’s clarinet-flavored “I’ll Be Your Pilot.” There’s an occasional stumble—“We Were Beautiful” and “Cornflakes” bury the group’s charm under thick layers of instrumentation—but much of this ranks with Belle and Sebastian’s best work.

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Logan Magness, Memphis on My Mind. As soon as Logan Magness puts his tenor on display—about 15 seconds into this upbeat debut album, following a drum roll and a bit of tasty guitar—you sense that he’s got something special to offer. The CD benefits from well-crafted lyrics that seem to come directly from personal experience. (The title cut addresses Magness’s recent return to his hometown after some years in San Francisco.) But the prime attractions on this live-in-the-studio-sounding CD are the artist’s upbeat melodies, consummate guitar work, and soulful, instantly likable vocals.

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Piramid Scheme, Get Rich Quick Too. Rock singer and guitarist Lisa Said, who has released several albums under her own name, teams with another guitarist and a drummer in this new band. Get Rich Quick Too—their five-track, 21-minute introductory EP—is loaded with garage-rock attitude, jangly guitars, and seductive vocals that seem redolent of Chrissie Hynde. I don’t know why the group’s name includes “Piramid” rather than “Pyramid”—maybe these folks can’t spell. Be that as it may, they can definitely rock. More, please.

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Western Centuries, Songs from the Deluge. Western Centuries hit the ground running on the accordion-spiced “Far from Home,” the lead-off track on this superlative album, and never let up. The group boasts three lead vocalists, each of whom take center stage for four tracks. They’re all good, but I’m particularly partial to the work of Ethan Lawton, who sounds redolent of the Amazing Rhythm Aces’ Russell Smith. The aforementioned “Far from Home,” about a soldier in Vietnam, reminds me of the Band at its best; another highlight is the fast-paced “Own Private Honky Tonk,” which features great pedal steel and piano work and enough energy to light a spark in any Texas roadhouse. 

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The Claudettes, Pull Closer to Me: Live in the Piano Room. Last week, I reviewed the Claudettes’ auspicious latest release, Dance Scandal at the Gymnasium! Since then, I’ve heard another of their recent efforts—this download-only 2017 EP—which I like even better. The seven-track set (available at the group’s website) includes three fine songs by the Claudettes’ Johnny Iguana that appear in radically different versions on Gymnasium!, plus four covers that you’d never expect to find in one place: T.Rex’s “Cosmic Dancer”; Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them,” combined, if you can believe it, with a whistled portion of Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”; Ruby and the Romantics’ 1963 hit, “Our Day Will Come”; and the Sundays’ “Here’s Where the Story Ends.” Everything here is excellent but the latter two tracks, both featuring sublime vocalist Berit Ulseth, are particularly arresting.

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Jeff Burger (byjeffburger.com), a longtime magazine editor, has written about music, politics, and popular culture for more than 75 periodicals. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters, Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches…

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