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POP MUSIC | RECORD RACK

The Stones 'Babylon' and On . . .

** THE ROLLING STONES, "Bridges to Babylon," Virgin

September 28, 1997|Richard Cromelin

When the Rolling Stones mobilize for a tour, it's a model of organization and enterprise. Stage a splashy press conference, unfurl the tongue icon, design the merchandise, book the stadiums, hook a sponsor. Anything else? Oh, right, an album.

Disney doesn't need a "Fantasia" in theaters to keep Disneyland the happiest place on Earth, and the Stones don't need a new "Exile on Main Street" to anchor a tour. But, really, they could act a little more interested than this. In 1964, they released the classic "Aftermath." This one could be called "Afterthought."

But "Bridges to Babylon" it is--a typically portentous, exotic title vaguely hinting of decadence. That's one of the standard elements they dust off for 1997, along with traces of the bedrock Stones sound and lyrical themes of sin and redemption, loss and vengeance.

The band's recent albums might be pure product, and nobody expects the Stones to mean something anymore, but at least "Voodoo Lounge" had some spark and energy. Overall, this ballad-heavy collection is bland enough in spirit and attitude to make you long for the good old days of gratuitous controversy and sexist swagger.

There are respectable moments in both fast and slow modes--a little snarl in "Already Over Me," a lean intensity and Eddie Cochran hop in the opening "Flip the Switch," a gospel-cum-"Sympathy for the Devil" drive in "Saint of Me."

But the bulk of the songs are uninspired retreads. That's especially disappointing because the band enlisted the Dust Brothers, Beck's production team, to work on the album. And, in fact, one of their three appearances, "Might as Well Get Juiced," is weird enough to stand out. The claustrophobic, layered track has a little fun with the dissolution theme, and it's the only sign here of trying something different.

The album grinds to a halt with two of the three Keith Richards-sung ballads. His warm, groggy warble is bizarrely fascinating, but a little goes a long way.

In another song, the guitarist croons, "You don't have to mean it . . . " Maybe not, but they should try it sometime and see what happens.

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Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good), four stars (excellent).

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* Excerpts from these albums and other recent releases are available on The Times' World Wide Web site. Point your browser to: http://www.latimes.com/soundclips

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