Bridges to Babylon
The Rolling Stones
(Virgin)

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 records 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 Sixties, 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, because unlike Sixties 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 and 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 make them infinitely listenable.

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

With 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 vacant 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 Mick seems to love but can never put across with anything resembling sincerity. "You Don't Have to Mean It" allows Keith to satisfy his reggae jones, but it meanders badly, and Richards's 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 scores only when they 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.

-- Gilbert Garcia

Be Here Now
Oasis
(Epic)

Now that the hype has settled, it is easier to see how this band of loudmouthed Manchester lads almost managed to become as big as the Beatles, if only in Britain. If brothers Noel and Liam Gallagher say it enough times -- who knows? -- they may be able to convince others.

Oasis appeared at a time when the term rock and roll was anathema. The self-imposed misery of grunge, the trademark humility of indie rock, and the facelessness of electronica did not then allow for any old-time rock excesses or poses. Oasis opened its debut album with a song called "Rock 'n' Roll Star" and took it from there. Now, with almost 20 million records sold, that title doesn't seem to be too far from the truth. The Everyman in the U.K. -- the average Joe down at the pub -- can relate to the catchy melodies and simple, peppy lyrics.

Be Here Now, its third album, celebrates Oasis and all things British. The cover -- with the mansion, the Rolls-Royce in the pool, the Vespa -- brings to mind All Mod Cons by the Jam, another great band from Old Albion that sought to prick up the American ear. On these shores, attitude alone doesn't cut it. On the contrary, we prefer our stars to be soft and cuddly, and we'd love it if they'd kiss our asses, too. The lads in Oasis don't do that: They are wildly self-congratulatory, serving up a heap of glory riffs and overstatements: "I met my maker, I made him cry/And on my shoulder he asked me why" ("D'You Know What I Mean?"); "The future's mine and it's no disgrace" ("I Hope, I Think, I Know"); "Who'll put on my shoes while they're walking/Slowly down the hall of fame" ("My Big Mouth"). Ah, the joys of being young, talented, and arrogant.

All that would be meaningless if they didn't write "top tunes" (Noel's words) that ring inside your head for days: "Stand By Me," which could be the new "Wonderwall," or the big and bouncy "Be Here Now," full of pure, kidlike joy. Or the mean rocker "Fade In-Out," building slowly on a slimy slide-guitar riff and Liam's gravelly voice yet never reaching a climax. Or the high-octane optimism of "It's Gettin' Better (Man!!)." Exuberance is the key, with layer upon layer of guitars, lush orchestrations, big and boomy drums, and overconfident vocals. The finale, "All Around the World (Reprise)," is very Beatle-esque -- naturally. Strings and horns collide in a crescendo like the ending of a big Technicolor movie, one in which the five honchos drive into the sunset in a chocolate-brown Rolls-Royce. Those damn rock and roll stars.

-- Philip Chrissopoulos

Tan Dun
Symphony 1997
(Sony Classical)

Initially, I thought the reunification of Hong Kong with the Chinese mainland was a pretty lousy subject to write a celebratory symphony about. If, however, one puts political issues aside, one might be able to affirm with sincerity that "all men are brothers" if one is unusually optimistic.

I have no doubt that Hunan-born composer Tan Dun is an optimist. The two years he spent working in the rice paddies of China during the Cultural Revolution didn't change that. A resident of New York City since 1986, Tan has captured the attention of the international classical music scene in the past five years with his concert and stage music, and for his -- if you can believe it -- approachable experimentation, which includes music made with paper and stones. There's little that's experimental about Symphony 1997, which the composer has subtitled Heaven Earth Mankind. It's a lush and cinematic work for full orchestra, solo cello, children's choir, and 65 bronze bells (exhumed recently from the tomb of a Chinese nobleman) that are more than 2400 years old. Shangri-la might sound like this; those who search a lost horizon for contemporary classical music that pleases the ear without numbing the brain will be rewarded by this work. Proudly eclectic, Tan blends traditional Chinese music, allusions to Western classical music (including Beethoven's "Ode to Joy"), and a taste of Hollywood with his stylistic explorations. Though sometimes confusing, it's never dull.

The well-recorded performances on Symphony 1997 are by the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Yip's Children's Choir, and the Imperial Bells Ensemble of China, all conducted by the composer.

-- Raymond Tuttle

Genesis
Calling All Stations
(Atlantic)

First Peter Gabriel left Genesis, but the group lived on. Then Phil Collins left -- it still didn't die. Then tiresome pomp-rockers Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks hired a new vocalist, John Wetton-imitator Ray Wilson, who causes Calling All Stations to sound like warmed-over Asia. Isn't there anything that can kill this group? Really. I want to know.

-- Michael Roberts

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