The Rolling Stones were never really a thinking band. A shrewd one, for sure, and one of the very best. But they earned their title as one of rock's all-time greatest by following their guts and playing what came naturally, not by overthinking the process.

That self-conscious analyzation made so many of their records from the mid-'70s onward sound so labored, as they hammered out detail after detail. It's also resulted in some huge gaps between releases. It's been 11 years since their last album, A Bigger Bang -- the longest period ever between Rolling Stones records.

The latest, Blue & Lonesome, was recorded in just three days, with little planning or overthinking. Granted, it's a covers album filled with the type of blues songs the band cut its teeth on more than 50 years ago, but that doesn't take away from its spitfire appeal. The Stones haven't made an album this virile in decades.

It certainly helps that the core quartet (along with some help from friends like Eric Clapton and Chuck Leavell) sounds like its off the clock. You have to go all the way back to the mid-'60s for Stones performances this loose and friendly. From the opening blare of "Just Your Fool," featuring the first of several howling harmonica solos by Mick Jagger, to the closing cover of Willie Dixon's classic "I Can't Quit You Baby," Blue & Lonesome is the sound of a legendary band making the most of its autumn years by revisiting its past.

But this is not just a nostalgia trip. The blues, by now, are pretty much an antiquated music form played by suburban bar-band weekend warriors and a handful of old-school faithfuls. Artists like Clapton, Led Zeppelin and the Stones turned it over in the '60s for a new generation; since then, it's been stuck between eras. The Stones don't do anything new here, but they find a sense of purpose -- within the music, as well as within themselves -- that's rejuvenating all the same.

This is where they started, after all. Before "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," before Sticky Fingers and before the superstar bloat that came after all that, the Rolling Stones were an ace blues band. So the best songs here -- Buddy Johnson's "Just Your Fool," Little Walter's "I Gotta Go," Eddie Taylor's "Ride 'Em on Down," "Hate to See You Go," another one originally written and recorded by Little Walter -- percolate with their natural feel for the music.

Jagger and Keith Richards, working with Don Was, keep the production gritty and primal. Tape hiss can be heard at the start and close of each song, and a few tracks end with studio chatter among the musicians. They're there to remind you of the informal setting that spurred Blue & Lonesome: The songs were recorded as warm-ups to the Stones' next album, the proper follow-up to A Bigger Bang. We're guessing whatever comes from those sessions, they won't match what's here.

How could it? With everyone but Ron Wood in his seventies, this return to the music of their youth often comes off like one last shot at recapturing what made the Stones so special in the first place. The stinging guitars that fire throughout "Commit a Crime" and "Ride 'Em on Down," not to mention Jagger's expert slippery harmonica playing, haven't been heard on a Rolling Stones record since the mid-'60s.

Of course, this is just a detour, a day (or three, as the case may be) at the playground. Blue & Lonesome doesn't restore the Rolling Stones' relevancy after too many years and too many Dirty Works and Bridges to Babylons. And some of it sounds a bit mannered. But it's the closest they've gotten to reminding us of their legacy in a long time, and confirmation that they're still among the best at what they do when they don't think too hard about it.

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