Keith Richards Breaks the Silence

Talk Is Cheap

Keith Richards

Virgin Records

WITH the long-awaited Talk Is Cheap, Keith Richards becomes the last Rolling Stone to release a solo album. The efforts from the other four Stones have been--speaking charitably--forgettable. In contrast, the high caliber of Talk proves what many listeners have suspected all along--that Richards (and not, say, Mick Jagger) is the primary architect of the Stones sound we know and love.

In the '80s, it's refreshing to hear any Stones product that's this good, so good that it makes you wonder why all the Stones albums since the excellent Some Girls 10 years ago have been so lame. Maybe Richards needed to escape from the restrictions of the Stones' marathon studio sessions and ego circuses in order to stretch and flex his musical muscles.


The Stones' current hiatus--and Richards has said in recent interviews that it is only a hiatus, not a permanent dissolution--gave Richards that opportunity. He assembled a crack band of studio musicians and impressive guests, including veteran studio guitarist Waddy Wachtel, star New Orleans pianist Ivan Neville, funkster bassist Bootsy Collins, Talking Heads keyboard sideman Bernie Worrell and E Street Band vocalist Patti Scialfa. Dubbed the X-Pensive Winos (Richards' comment on their salaries and drinking habits), these players have allowed the star to do things his way.

The X-Pensive Winos seems an appropriate name, considering how they hoot and holler in the background of some cuts like the world's oldest frat band. Though they sound deceptively loose, they were tight enough to record many of Talk's songs in a single take. The result is the spontaneous, raw sound that marks the Stones' best work, a sound one has come not to expect from their recent albums or solo projects.

The other striking thing about Talk is that Richards sings lead on every track--and does it with dexterity. If you laughed at Keith's occasional attempts at lead vocals on Stones albums, you'll be astonished at how adept his singing has become. His voice still has the narrow timbre of old, and his rasp is raspier than ever, but his vocal gymnastics display an unexpected spryness. On one song, the Stax-like "Make No Mistake," he even croons and whispers like Al Green (though without Green's range), curling his voice around each syllable with palpable relish. Keith also proves himself a reasonable blues shouter, in the mold of--who else?--Mick Jagger.

THE styles of the songs cover the entire spectrum of rock history. At one end is the droll "I Could Have Stood You Up," featuring Jordanaires-like "bop bop" vocals in the background, Chuck Berry sideman Johnnie Johnson's rolling piano in the foreground and whimsical lyrics like "My shoes walked down the street/Only trouble is they weren't on my feet." At the other end is the funky swagger "Big Enough," which plays with tricky tape loops and loud bass and drums.

But most of the songs, however distinctive their styles, sound like vintage Stones. "Big Enough," for example, sounds like an update of "Hot Stuff," while "Take It So Hard," recalls "Brown Sugar," and "Rockawhile" recalls any number of two-chord Stones jams. "Struggle" is a Stones voodoo party-from-hell song, like "Gimme Shelter" or "Sympathy for the Devil," and "Whip It Up" calls to mind "Midnight Rambler," even though it's not about S and M, as the title would have you believe.

The drawback to this Stonification process is that many of the songs follow the Stones pattern of taking an unadorned riff, establishing a groove with it and playing it for a long time without really taking it anywhere or building upon it. But what riffs! Keith plays as well as he always has, generating that unmistakable fuzztone sound that is his alone, and that redeems any flaws the songs may have.

Richards' lyrics are adequate, if not great. "You Don't Move Me"--a swipe at Mick Jagger for his current reluctance to record with other Stones--is a litany of lines like "It's no longer funny/It's bigger than money." The album's best track, the country ballad "Locked Away," begins with the wonderfully terse summation, "She swears that I'm the only one/What about yesterday?" The singer goes on to suggest that she, he and his friends "ought to be locked away"--she for her faithlessness, he for his insane jealousy, and his friends for their insensitivity.

Of course, when it comes to lyrics, Richards is no Dylan, nor even a Jagger, making Talk Is Cheap seem an appropriate title. But Richards places a premium on his guitar work, which has always been much more eloquent than his lyrics anyway. Talk Is Cheap demonstrates once and for all that Keith's guitar is the authentic voice of the Rolling Stones.