By most standards, a record this loosely arranged, casually executed and at times downright sloppy wouldn't even pass muster as a demo. But Keith Richards is the Glimmer Twin with the garage-rock heart, a Rolling Stone for whom rawness isn't just a virtue, it's nirvana. Would he have it any other way? The funky whack of real-time, real-life drumming instead of digital imitations of Charlie Watts, flying scraps of rawmeat guitar instead of a fashionable coating of ice-cream synths, backup vocals that could have been provided by the Hangover Tabernacle Choir — Mick Jagger's recent solo may be high on style and sass, but it's tough to beat Talk Is Cheap for real primitive cool.
Indeed, Richards's first solo album is a masterpiece of underachievement. He does nothing more or less than what he's always done on Stones records, slicing and dicing classic blues and Berryesque motifs into junkyard-dog guitar growls, singing in a shaky tortured-tonsil yelp that makes Jagger sound like Metropolitan Opera material. Half of the songs are really just licks and skeletal chord changes cribbed from the Rolling Stones' riff manual and jammed into sing-along shape. "Big Enough" is basically "Hot Stuff" spiked with loopy bass by Bootsy Collins and squealing alto sax by James Brown vet Maceo Parker. "Take It So Hard," with its tough, staccato chords and boys-in-the-barroom backup vocals, is a chip off the old Exile on Main Street block.
Admittedly short on ambition, the album — written and produced by Richards and drummer Steve Jordan — is deliciously long on grooves like the lazily swinging "Rockawhile" and the overtly Stonesy "Whip It Up." "Make No Mistake," a copycat slice of Al Green erotica, finds Richards, in a surprisingly credible croon, and former Labelle singer Sarah Dash lighting a nice little bedroom fire, which is fanned by the Memphis Horns.
A little ambition would have gone a long way, though. In his open poisonpen letter to Jagger, the voodoo-blues stroll "You Don't Move Me," Richards complains that "you made the wrong motion/Drank the wrong potion/You lost the feeling/That's so appealing." But stepping out of bounds is what solo albums are for. Although Richards surrounds himself with topdrawer players on Talk Is Cheap — among them, Bernie Worrell, Ivan Neville, Joey Spampinato, Waddy Wachtel and zydeco superstars Michael Doucet and Stanley "Buckwheat" Dural — he concentrates so much on familiar motions and feelings that the whole record starts to sound like an unfinished Stones platter.
Make no mistake, this album is a joy to behear in a pop era where too many records are ten-percent inspiration and ninety-percent remixing. But if Talk Is Cheap has a major flaw, it's only that it is an all-too-simple pleasure, great grooves in search of a vital purpose, just as Jagger's own solo trips were hip concepts lacking that randy Keef edge. If Jagger and Richards have learned anything from each other's records, it's probably that their greatest assets are each other.