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When most of us think of Keith Richards, we conjure up something of an avatar for rock ’n’ roll itself: Sinister, glowering, armed with a bottle of Jack and a battle-worn Telecaster, literally and figuratively smoking as he fires off the leering riffs that arguably invented classic rock: “Satisfaction,” “Start Me Up,” and “Brown Sugar.” But what gets overlooked in all the mythology, iconography, and worn out substance-abuse jokes is the deep emotional and musical sensitivity behind the stadium-sized swagger.
Keith’s solo albums shatter expectations in the best possible way
While his specific contributions to the Jagger/Richards collaboration are much harder to unravel than, say, Lennon’s versus McCartney’s in the Beatles, you can hear bits of Keith’s hard-earned world-weariness on the albums the Stones have made in the last 25 years, starting with “Slipping Away” from Steel Wheels, moving through the alt-country ache of Voodoo Lounge‘s “The Worst,” to the open-wound vulnerability of “This Place Is Empty” from A Bigger Bang. But his solo albums offer the uncut Keith. Firmly in control and surrounded by hand-picked accomplices, we get the truest sense of Keith Richards as a musician and a man separate from the band that made him an icon. His insightful, often delicate musicianship, broad range of influences and deeply soulful voice shatter expectations in the best possible way.
The charting singles most folks know from Keith’s solo albums have tended to be the ones that sound the most like the Stones hits from the ’70s and ’80s — “Take It So Hard,” “Wicked As It Seems,” and “Eileen,” — but there are always album cuts that stand in gorgeous, multi-colored contrast to the stereotype of Keith Richards, Rock Star. Our favorite is “Hate It When You Leave,” which captures his exquisite song craft and decidedly adult worldview in a song that channels the best Motown singles without sinking in to cheap imitation or the retro trappings of the recent Dap-Tone-led soul revival.
What nobody talks about when they talk about Keith as a singer is his utter mastery of time and phrasing.
“Hate It When You Leave” is locked down with a water-tight beat, pounded out like a caveman’s club swung with a jazzman’s finesse. The flutes and horns bounce off each other in a call-and-response that’s equal bits big band and Baptist church. And don’t look for arena riffs or flash solos from Keith here. The guitars are all delicate hooks and restrained filigree in strict service of the melody and groove. And then there’s Keith’s voice. What nobody talks about when they talk about Keith as a singer (where his voice is too often dismissed lazily with words like “thin,” “raspy,” and “limited”) is his utter mastery of time and phrasing. Keith studies the spaces in between the beats, hanging back to wind up the tension. He knows full well the emotional power of silence and when to break it. Like Al Green (of whom Keith is no doubt a fan and student based on “Make No Mistake“), he knows that whispers and breaths can be as potent as screams and shouts. Keith sings the way he plays guitar, weaving in and out of the melody, stepping in right when you’re not expecting him and delivering exactly what the song needs. He moves from a wounded choke to a menacing growl as each phrase of the lyrics demand. Even his shouted asides and gospel-inspired vocal runs sound effortless but surgically placed. He may not have Otis Redding’s lungs, but he clearly understands Sam Cooke’s soul.
There are plenty of other great Keith Richards tracks that showcase his deft touch and deep love of R&B, country and reggae, some of which we gathered up in the playlist below. All of them explain why, while we love that the new single, “Trouble” is in the rocked-out pocket of “Happy,” “Before They Make Me Run” and “Little T&A,” we’re looking forward to the inevitable moments on the Crosseyed Heart when things relax a little bit and Keith seduces us with a whole new groove we didn’t see coming.
BONUS CUT: Inspired by “Hate It When You Leave” and excited by the prospect of a new album, we put together a playlist of a few of our favorite lesser-known Keith Richards tracks, both solo and with the Rolling Stones. Dig: