THE WORLD'S greatest rock-'n'-roll band has inconspicuously developed into something more specific -- the world's most satisfying FM highway band. But it has gathered, if not moss, a certain inadvertent resignation: Cassandra has sunk back into the Chorus.
New Rolling Stones albums are always enigmatic because they embrace virtually the same idioms and ideals as every other Stones album. It's not the self-parody of the Beach Boys, flailing their rehashed songs like oars in a dry creekbed; and perhaps it's not as intellectually attractive as the personal evolutions of a Springsteen. The Stones merely adhere to their original convictions: that rock is a straightforward medium, simple but not simplistic, sensual and direct; a rallying of the disaffected, by the disaffected, for the disaffected.
"Tattoo You" (Rollings Stones Records COC 16052) is a good Stones album, but not a great one: far more ingratiating than the barren "Emotional Rescue" but not as arousing as "Some Girls." Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the Glimmer Twins, have produced songs that are sullen, cynical, a little sad, but wholly consistent with the body of their work. And that is a peculiar achievement: The Stones have, against all the implications of that irresponsible name, become as dependable as a rock.
This is a band that needs no introduction, even on the radio. From the "Brown Sugar"-y licks on "Start Me Up" to the cowbells and the reverberating mid-'60s bass twang, the style is unmistakable. But the overall familiarity deliberately obscures faint but intriguing shifts. Jagger has, by his lights, remained faithful to the remark that he wouldn't be singing "Satisfaction" at 40. The frustration remains, but the fury has faded. In "Hang Fire," the onetime "Street Fighting Man" is still itchy-fisted, but his hand is open: "Nowhere to work, nothing to drink . . . I'm on the dole . . . say what the hell."
Still, these are Grimmer Twins, well aware of the ironies of their pose as poor boys: In "Limousine," Jagger remembers with well-heeled humor his girl in white, "and me in green."
Dark humor remains a hallmark, as well: "It's a daily wonder," says Jagger of the parade of crazies passing for "Neighbors": "Neighbors do unto strangers do unto neighbors what you do to yourself."
There's more than one reference to the old Glimmer vision of male-female relations as guerilla warfare Pop Recordings (most notably in "Little T&A"), but hidden at the very end of the album, there's a quietly mature vision of human need that surpasses sex:
I need someone I can cry to
I need someone to protect;
Making love and breaking hearts
It is a game for youth . . .
I'm not waiting on a lady,
I'm just waiting on a friend.
The album cover is a bit of a puzzler. Christian Piper's portraits of Jagger and Richards transform them into near-ritual masks -- Frank Frazetta meets the Illustrated Man. The inner sleeve, also by Piper, is an inexplicably perfect Glimmer Twins metaphor: a sleek fur-covered ankle in a patent-leather pump.
Meanwhile, cheated of his tattoos, Rolling Stone guitarist Ron Wood has illustrated his latest solo effort with self-portraits -- not bad, as a matter of fact -- but it's hard to imagine too many people taking advantage of the $16.95 offer of a Woody-signed facsimile on "canvass."
"1234" (Columbia FC 37473) is not an album to listen to so much as one to put on while you're doing something else. Wood's vocals are the weakest point of the production, but the instrumental work can be mindlessly pleasant.
The album is packed with the usual guests, including Bobby Womack, Bobby Keys, Ian McLagan, Nicky Hopkins, Charlie Watts. Wood has rounded up some less Barbarian assistance, too: Clydie King, Anita Pointer, Devo's Alan Myers, Waddy Wachtel. Rod Stewart arranged one number, the very Stewartesque "Priceless." Recommended is "Outlaws," in which Wood puts on his best Dylan drawl to lament, "They don't make outlaws like they used to anymore."