critic’s pick 293: keith richards, ‘crosseyed heart’

keith richardsThere is something about hearing Keith Richards embrace the Leadbelly classic Goodnight Irene in the midst of his new Crosseyed Heart album that is as charming as it is unexpected. On first listen, you would think you were listening to 1990s-era Bob Dylan as the boozy, scratchy but obviously enchanted vocals envelop a parlor-style backdrop. But Keith being Keith, the whole thing still dances like a ballet in a brothel.

The folkish sway isn’t entirely indicative of Richards’ first solo album in over two decades. There are also snapshots of blues, reggae, jagged pop and, of course, the sort of loose but turbulent jams that have long been second nature to the guitarist who remains the heartbeat of the Rolling Stones.

In essence, Crosseyed Heart is less of a studio album as it is a block party. The album’s opening title tune is a slice of relaxed acoustic blues, the morning serenade of a reveler temporarily at rest. A few songs later, Richards starts flexing his electric cunning with a roving bit of party fun called Trouble (“Maybe trouble is your middle name”) that celebrates the Stones sound of decades past. That leads directly into Love Overdue, a fresh blast of horn driven reggae sunshine. By the time he reaches Suspicious, Richards is playing the crooner on a twilight hued meditation that can easily be pictured sung under a streetlight (or in a back alley). Then you run smack into Something for Nothing, a churning celebration you hear initially from a distance, as though the song was marching from down the street in your direction. But when it hits, the party hits full force with pure, rhythmic cheer. In a blindfold test, the tune could pass for a Stones song in a heartbeat.

Amazingly, all of that covers only the first half of Crosseyed Heart. What comes next is the album’s biggest curve ball, a duet with Norah Jones in Illusion. But Jones is in Richards’ junkyard here and adopts a woozy vocal counterpoint that is strangely complimentary. But the whopper is a clanging, rumbling rumination of a head-butting relationship on the skids titled Substantial Damage (“What are we doing together? You got the broom, I’ve got the feather”).

The same co-horts that formed the foundation of Richards ‘80s/’90s side project troupe, The X-pensive Winos – specifically drummer/co-producer Steve Jordan, guitarist Waddy Wachtel and, posthumously, saxophonist Bobby Keys – are back on board for the party. But Richards is the soulful, happily battered star here. He wears his crosseyed heart like a badge of honor, discovering warmth and cheers in the heart of rock ‘n’ roll darkness.

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