On The Record: the Rolling Stones’ ‘Hackney Diamonds,’ plus James Talley, Clay Parker and Jodi James, & the Babys

The last time the Rolling Stones released an album of new original material, 2005’s A Bigger Bang, George W. Bush’s father was president, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were 61, guitarist and bass player Ron Wood was 58, and drummer Charlie Watts was 63. Today, Jagger and Richards are 80, Wood is 76, Watts is dead, and the band’s latest tour features sponsorship by AARP. More than six decades after the Stones formed, can its three remaining members still cut the mustard? 

The recently released Hackney Diamonds attempts to answer that question with music that echoes and to some extent updates the sound of the band’s peak-era LPs and proves its energy remains intact – indeed, we should all hope to have as much stamina and passion as these guys when we hit their age. The Stones’ inspiration level does seem somewhat reduced, however. The new CD has its strengths but it’s no Exile on Main Street or Some Girls.

The record is unusual on several counts, aside from the fact that it follows an 18-year pause. While Jagger and Richards (aka the Glimmer Twins) co-produced their recent albums with assorted associates, they brought in a new accomplice – Andrew Watt, whose motley credits range from Iggy Pop and Post Malone to Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus – to solely oversee the work on Hackney Diamonds. And though Mick and Keith have in recent years co-authored nearly all their original material without other collaborators, they share composing credits on this CD’s first three tracks with Watt. 

Hackney Diamonds is also the first Stones album without a major presence by Charlie Watts, to whom the record is dedicated, though he does appear on two tracks that the group recorded in 2019. One of them, “Live by the Sword,” also features original bassist Bill Wyman, who left the Stones in 1993. Finally, the record features an atypically long series of other A-list guest artists, including Elton John, Paul McCartney, Lady Gaga, and Stevie Wonder. 

Several of the tracks, including “Angry,” “Whole Wide World,” “Live by the Sword,” and “Bite My Head Off” are high-octane arena rockers that will appeal to fans of numbers like “Start Me Up.” They’re not particularly memorable but they certainly don’t sound like the work of octogenarians. In fact, “Bite My Head Off” – one of several complaint songs from the same folks who brought you gripes like “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “Get Off My Cloud” – could almost be mistaken for a Sex Pistols outtake. 

“Dreamy Skies” offers a welcome alternative. This country-tinged ballad, which recalls such earlier standouts as “Faraway Eyes” and “Dead Flowers,” features a fine Jagger vocal, excellent guitar by Richards, and lyrics about taking a break “where there ain’t another human for 100 miles…[and] an old AM radio is all that I’ve got.” Other highlights include “Driving Me Too Hard,” which profits from ringing guitars and addictive hooks; the midtempo “Tell Me Straight,” where Richards sings about a shaky relationship; “Depending on You,” a ballad that features a string arrangement and the Heartbreakers’ Benmont Tench on organ; and “Sweet Sounds of Heaven,” where Gaga shares vocal duties with Jagger. The album closes with “Rolling Stone Blues,” an acoustic hat-tip to Muddy Waters, whose “Rollin’ Stone” gave the group its name.

Bottom line: this is an album with zero surprises and little innovation but also one that delivers more than a few pleasures and should be a safe bet for fans. The group isn’t taking any big chances at this point and doesn’t seem to have much new to say musically or lyrically, but its members still know how to rock and roll.

Also Noteworthy

James TalleyBandits, Ballads and Blues. Folk singer/songwriter James Talley’s underappreciated sophomore release, Tryin’ Like the Devil, got a second shot at the spotlight when a 40th anniversary edition came out a few years ago. And now we have Bandits, Ballads and Blues – his first new LP since 2008 and only the 15th of his half-century-long career – which may be his best effort to date. In various ways, Talley recalls such artists as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and John Prine, all of whom would likely have loved this album’s music as well as its take on humankind.

Featuring backup by seven top-notch Nashville musicians who add instruments that include accordion, trumpet, and fiddle, the exquisitely crafted CD serves up evocative and imaginative self-penned lyrics, indelible melodies, and warm, distinctive vocal work. There’s not a bad track on the record but highlights include “The Lovesong of Billy the Kid,” a south-of-the-border-flavored tale of the outlaw that’s told from his perspective; “You Always Look Good in Red,” a tribute to Talley’s wife; and “The Dreamer (A Song for My Father).” 

You’ll also find some deftly written topical material, including “Jesus Wasn’t a Capitalist”; “For Those Who Can’t,” a salute to Vietnam vets; and the poignant “Christmas on the Rio Grande.” That lilting latter number talks about the people arriving at America’s southern border, asks who they are, and then answers the question: “They are just pilgrims chasing a dream / They come from hunger, they come from danger / They love their children, same as you and me / These weary travelers, down on the border / Are they not worthy of kindness sometimes?”

Clay Parker and Jodi JamesYour Very Own Dream. This Americana duo took three years to release their first full-length album, 2018’s The Lonesomest Sound That Can Sound, and another five years to issue this follow-up. Like the Baton Rouge, Louisiana–based couple’s recording schedule, their self-penned songs proceed at a leisurely pace. There’s nothing here you’d call ostentatious – or even particularly upbeat – just solidly constructed midtempo music, pensive lyrics, and impressive vocals and harmonizing. 

One highlight is the introspective title cut, which ends with James singing, “You know by now that things ain’t ever as they seem / Except the cold sweat of waking from your very own dream.” This and several of the other song seems likely to be covered but the moody versions here will be hard to beat. Check them out if you’re a fan of duos such as the Kennedys and Dave Carter & Tracy Grammer.

The BabysLive at the Bottom Line 1979. The British group the Babys, whose early work sometimes recalls outfits such as Bad Company and Foreigner, were riding on the success of two Top 20 U.S. hits when they played New York’s Bottom Line in 1979. 

Packing a more powerful punch in the concert than they did in the studio in this previously unreleased recording, they deliver both those hits (“Isn’t It Time” and “Every Time I Think of You”) plus a caffeinated cover of “Money (That’s What I Want),” the Motown staple, and eight other rockers. Nearly all of them were written or co-written by lead singer John Waite, who scored a No. 1 American hit as a solo artist with 1984’s “Missing You.”

Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains five decades’ worth of music reviews, interviews, and commentary. His books include Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and EncountersLennon on Lennon: Conversations with John LennonLeonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.