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Emotional Miscues

Although they've never really gone away, the Rolling Stones have had more "comebacks" than Richard Nixon.

Every time they emerge from their cocoon of luxury for a new album, Rolling Stone magazine assures us that they're back, that previous Stones recordings may have been subpar, but this new one is the real deal. It's a strange waltz of denial perpetrated by Jann Wenner and his fellow children of the '60s, who cling to their few surviving icons like Titanic passengers groping for life rafts in the cold Atlantic.

Self-delusion is easy with the Stones, 'cause, unlike '60s giants such as Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney, they've never made a truly terrible album. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards may now resemble Don Knotts and Abe Vigoda, and their stadium shows may be remote, overpriced, nostalgia-driven farces, but their sense of craft tends to bail them out in the studio. Having Charlie Watts, the greatest drummer in the history of rock 'n' roll, at your disposal doesn't hurt. Even at their worst--say, Emotional Rescue or Goats Head Soup--their sense of groove and command of the rock idiom makes them infinitely listenable.

The Stones' problem is that they've passed off the counterfeit stuff for so long, neither they nor their fans can recognize the genuine article anymore. Richards' seemingly endless ability to turn a simple riff into a song has become a kind of curse, as he and Jagger spin out one blustery, stadium-rock rave-up after another, usually with some hackneyed three-word title like "Sparks Will Fly" or "Out of Control."

With the new Bridges to Babylon, the Stones really try to find some new sonic avenues. They employ a consortium of producers, including Don Was and the Dust Brothers (they even attempted one track with Babyface, but they ditched it when he and Jagger didn't get along). They also try to make an asset of their unfilled bass position, using everyone from road fill-in Darryl Jones to Doug Wimbish and Me'Shell Ndegeocello.

For all the fresh input, however, the results vary little from recent Stones efforts like Steel Wheels or Voodoo Lounge. "Already Over Me" and "Always Suffering" are two of those mediocre you-done-me-wrong ballads that Jagger seems to love, but can never put across with anything resembling sincerity. "You Don't Have to Mean It" allows Richards to satisfy his reggae jones, but it meanders badly, and Richards' vocal won't keep any Jamaican crooners up at night. Even the album's gutsiest move, the gurgling hip-hop blues of "Might As Well Get Juiced," is basically an inspired Dust Brothers production squandered on a lame-ass song.

Like all post-Tattoo You Stones albums, Bridges to Babylon only scores when the Stones accidentally lock into a catchy throwaway, like the rousing "Too Tight" or "Lowdown," Jagger's plea for honesty, a la John Lennon's "Gimme Some Truth." As usual, the Stones also have an arresting single in them, in this case the moody R&B weeper "Anybody Seen My Baby?". Superfluous Biz Markie samples aside, this song suggests what the Stones could have pulled off on this album, if Jagger and Richards still had some fuel in their songwriting tank.

While the Stones' greatest sin is predictability, Bob Dylan remains, after 35 years of recording, an unfathomable enigma even to his most ardent fans. Ever since the disappointing commercial showing of 1985's Empire Burlesque, Dylan has frequently hinted that the world doesn't need any more Bob Dylan songs, and that he just might give up songwriting.

During the past seven years, he's apparently made good on the threat/promise, neither releasing nor recording any original material since 1990's lightweight Under the Red Sky. In light of the surprisingly positive turn Dylan's live shows have taken in the past three years--with the man revealing previously unimagined talents as a lead guitarist--it was almost impossible to guess what shape his new album, Time Out of Mind, might take.

Reuniting with Daniel Lanois, who produced Zimmy's acclaimed 1989 album Oh Mercy, Dylan reemerges as an aging troubadour whose famous bitterness has softened into sad resignation; a guy whose obsessions with the past become tangible enough to keep him company at night.

By the time Lanois worked on Oh Mercy, Dylan was reduced to a hoarse Leonard Cohenesque whisper, and the past few years have only made it clearer that Bob's voice is absolutely shot to hell. But his frayed tone so perfectly captures the world-weariness at the heart of these songs, its very obvious flaws actually become assets. On "Standing in the Doorway," when he slurs "Last night I danced with a stranger/But she just reminded me you're the one," his delivery perfectly conveys someone whose past is too painful and whose present is too empty.

For his part, Lanois makes these unassuming bluesy numbers sound as haunting and mysterious as our tangled dreams of Robert Johnson. Lanois miked the instruments from a distance, giving the whole thing the feel of a distant radio or an overheard conversation. Since Dylan no longer paints elaborate pictures with words, the contradictions and complexities emerge only in the small musical details: a ghostly, dissonant touch of organ from Augie Myers on the shuffling "Cold Irons Bound," or Dylan's subtle vocal inflections on the 16-minute coda, "Highlands."

Near the end of the quietly desperate "Not Dark Yet," Dylan sings "I know it looks like I'm moving, but I'm standing still." As usual with Dylan, everything is the opposite of what it appears. It actually looks like he's standing still, stuck in a mire of self-pity. But in his own crabby way, he's moving forward, coming to terms with the heartbreak of dashed expectations.

As solid a collection as this album may be, there are times when you can't help but feel frustrated that a sympathetic producer like Lanois wasn't available to Dylan in the mid-'70s, when both his voice and muse were in sturdier form. Back then, Dylan was haphazardly laying down masterpieces like "Idiot Wind" and "Isis," with very little respect for the recording process. But if his audience occasionally would like to tidy up his past, it's not alone. Based on the elegiac evidence of Time Out of Mind, Dylan would love nothing more than to do the same.

Compared with either the Stones or Dylan, Paul McCartney has always been both more conservative and more daring. Even during his Beatle days, Macca would venture off into Stockhausen-inspired tape-loop experiments while simultaneously covering his ass with sure-fire commercial confections like "Hello Goodbye." In 1991, he took a bold step--since followed by the likes of Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson and Billy Joel--into the realm of classical composition, with The Liverpool Oratorio.

Though this extended work was widely criticized for clumsy lyrics (what did you expect from the guy who wrote "Bip Bop"?) and tedious instrumental passages, the oratorio had its moments. Taken as individual songs, such pieces as "Do You Know Who You Are?" and "Born in Liverpool" were among the most inspired and intricate melodies McCartney had hatched since John said "I want a divorce." They offered some indication that The Cute One had been bottling up some of his musical sophistication, and that a more ambitious form could pull it out of him.

Well, if there's a great classical composer hiding behind Paulie's smiling facade, it doesn't come out to play on Standing Stone. A symphonic work commissioned by EMI--kinda like ABC "commissioning" Peter Jennings to read the news--for its centennial celebration, Standing Stone fancies itself a symphonic poem, using instrumental and choral coloring to convey the life of ancient Celtic man. In the sense that much of Standing Stone is boring, repetitious and simple-minded, it succeeds.

The beginning of the first movement sounds like Sgt. Pepper's opening orchestral warm-up stretched out for five minutes and propelled by out-of-time whacks on a timpani. You keep waiting for McCartney to put his own melodic stamp on the proceedings, but in his effort to be serious, he's denied the exuberance that carried him through even his weakest recordings. Despite the flawless work of the London Symphony Orchestra, it all comes off like second-rate John Williams. Golden slumbers, indeed.

The sad fact is that McCartney experimented with classical motifs much more successfully his first time out, back in 1966 with "Love in the Open Air," from The Family Way soundtrack. But back then, he was collaborating with George Martin, just as he collaborated with Carl Davis for The Liverpool Oratorio. And if we've learned anything about McCartney over the years, it's that he doesn't work well alone.