Friday, May 21, 2010

Rolling Stones 18: Exile On Main St.

For all the eternal debate among vinyl vs. CD, there’s no denying the convenience factor that the digital medium has brought us. An album like Exile On Main St. may sound better on a turntable, some say, but on a CD, you can leave it in for just over an hour’s worth of entertainment. On vinyl, you have to change or replay the sides every 15 minutes or so. Mick Jagger has suggested this was on purpose, that it’s not supposed to be digested all at once. It’s not the first time we’ve disagreed with him.

Exile On Main St. is testimony that Charlie Watts should be knighted. Even for the songs he didn’t play on. (It also reminds us to pester the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame about inducting Nicky Hopkins already.) It’s also the album that gets mentioned as a hallmark whenever the Stones put out a new album that’s supposed to recapture their old classic sound. It’s not necessarily their last “good” album (for instance, Tattoo You still holds up) but it certainly closes out a series that began four years earlier. Until the digital era it was their only double album, and while it may be a lot to take in at once, there isn’t much filler. Each of the sides are sequenced just right, even if that’s lost in the CD experience.

“Rocks Off” appropriately opens side one with a bang, which continues on “Rip This Joint”. The dirty blues take over for a cover of “Shake Your Hips” and “Casino Boogie”, before closing with “Tumbling Dice”. Linda Ronstadt’s version may cloud your opinion of the song, but the way the drums come back in for the fadeout is one of the most exhilarating moments on wax. (We had hoped it was Charlie, but sources insist it was producer Jimmy Miller, no slouch on the skins, he.) Side two is more or less country, starting with the acoustic “Sweet Virginia”. “Torn And Frayed” picks it up, “Sweet Black Angel” is an unnecessary tribute to Angela Davis, and “Loving Cup” brings Nicky up front where he should be.

Side three is the one to leave on the turntable for the most consecutive plays. Keith yells “Happy” (Jimmy Miller on the kit again), “Turd On The Run” and “Ventilator Blues” are incomprehensible, “I Just Want To See His Face” is a voodoo chant, and it all comes down to “Let It Loose”, possibly the most underrated Stones track. You’d think side four would be anticlimactic after all that, but “All Down The Line” brings another quintessential Stones riff to the table. “Stop Breaking Down” is one of the better Robert Johnson interpretations out there. “Shine A Light” swaps Billy Preston for Nicky and we’ll allow it, as the gospel feel truly benefits from his touch. (Supposedly this was written in memory of Brian Jones, which is a very sweet gesture, but the music was supposedly written by the uncredited Leon Russell, the omission of which tarnishes it.) “Soul Survivor” slams the door on the proceedings with a backwards riff.

The album’s 38th (?) anniversary was celebrated with a deluxe reissue, including ten unreleased tracks. Some were merely alternate takes—“Loving Cup” is slower, “Soul Survivor” is sung by Keith and “Good Time Women” is an early stab at “Tumbling Dice”—but the rest were vintage takes newly finished. The concept of Mick singing over old tracks is a little jarring, and none of the tracks are likely to supplant anyone’s least favorites from the original LP, but the spirit of the original sessions comes through, thanks mostly to Charlie and good old Nicky. “Pass The Wine” sounds just a little too new, but the horns help. “Plundered My Soul” captures the “Tumbling Dice” vibe nicely; it includes new parts by both Micks, yet “I’m Not Signifying” may well have been left untouched. “Following The River” is a nice piano tune derailed by strings. The flat vocals on “Dancing In The Light” pretty much prove they’re new, but we almost wish they’d been Auto-Tuned. We also can’t decide if the “Paint It Black” intro to “So Divine” should be excused, but the vibes and phased drums make it work. And it all ends with a brief instrumental featuring just Keith, Bill and Charlie, just the way it should be. (Except that most reports say it dates from 1967, so…)

At any rate, Exile On Main St. falls just short of five stars, but just writing about it makes us want to throw it on. It really is that good. Mick Taylor would stick around for two more albums, and then Ron Wood came in and never left. They’ve had their moments here and there since then, but rarely have they clicked so well. These days they’re a cash cow, and eccentric as ever. They’ll certainly never tour as a five-piece again, without all the horns and backup singers and big expensive sets, but for once, this album benefits from all the other people who helped out.

The Rolling Stones Exile On Main St. (1972)—
2010 Deluxe Edition: same as 1972, plus 10 extra tracks


  1. I see you do not give out five stars lightly. This is probably my favorite Stones album. IMO, the Robert Ludwig mastered '94 CD on Virgin is the best sounding CD. But the original LP really does sound best, even if changing sides in a pain.

  2. Five stars has to be perfect, meaning that there aren't any songs I'd want to skip. In this case, "Sweet Black Angel" sinks it.

  3. I wouldn't want to leave Sweet Black Angel off of Exile. It makes the album better with its inclusion. I like reading your reviews, though.

  4. Thanks for the write-up, but I think I'll stick with the original.

  5. I can understand your thinking about an album needing to be perfect to get five stars. But there are a lot of albums where I tend to skip one song that are nevertheless among my favorites. On the other hand, there are many albums where I don't want to skip any songs, but the album isn't as strong on the whole. I guess I would tend to rate an album with 9 great songs and one bad one higher than one with five great songs and five good ones.

    I guess this is why I never assign star or numerical ratings to anything, because I am really bad at quantifying things.

  6. I shouldn't say that one track will keep something from being five stars; for instance I usually skip "Sympathy For The Devil" or "Hey Jude" or "Birthday" because I've heard them so many times. But I do refine my numerical ratings from time to time. Exile may well get moved up one day. Or not.

  7. I was just talking to a co-worker the other day about this album. One of the best summers of my life were spent with you, Doug and Sean at your old place in Bridgeport listening to Exile. Good times, really good times.