The Rolling Stones: Exile On Main St. (Deluxe Edition)

When news broke in late 2009 that Exile On Main St. would be rereleased in a deluxe package as a 2-CD set with ten previously unreleased bonus tracks, there was a great deal of anticipation among hardcore Stones fans. Possibly the best album of their career would now have ten additional songs that had been left on the cutting room floor. Then the news came out that many of the tracks were left unfinished. Some had no lyrics, some were missing crucial elements (like lead guitar). The decision the Stones made to go in and write new lyrics, add new vocals, and new overdubs was greeted with a great deal of skepticism.

Turns out, there was no need for skepticism.

I’m not going to parse what’s “authentic” and what’s not on the bonus tracks. As a whole, they’re excellent whether the vocal was done in 1972 or 2009. To my ears, they all sound like they’ve been mastered using modern technology, and Jagger’s vocals on the unheard material sounds suspiciously like it’s a more recent vintage…but they’re still the best vocals he’s laid down in ages. From a sonic perspective, the unreleased songs sound brighter and cleaner than Exile‘s famous murkiness, but that’s not really a drawback.

“Pass The Wine (Sophia Loren)” has a killer harmonica solo and the soul sister backing vocals that highlighted many of the Exile tracks, but in some ways it sounds to me more like a Goat’s Head Soup outtake overdubbed to sound like Exile. All the same, while it’s not of the same quality as songs like “Tumbling Dice” or “Loving Cup,” it blends in nicely with those songs, carrying a similar groove and vibe.

The second track, and single release, is “Plundered My Soul,” which features newly overdubbed guitar from Mick Taylor, who was invited back to put his special touch on the song. It was a wise choice. Taylor was the best guitarist the Stones ever had, and his distinctive blues picking is a pleasure to hear after so many years of the Keith Richards/Ronnie Wood rhythmic “art of weaving.” The vocal sounds suspiciously recent, but it’s excellent. It’s a fantastic track that gets better with each listen and the best single the Stones have released since God knows when. Maybe since “Tumbling Dice.” It’s the kind of song that’s easy to imagine blasting out of a portable transistor radio in a 1970s summer and if there were any justice in the world it would be a lot more successful than the latest single by the chart toppers of 2010.

“I’m Not Signifying” slows it down with a great boogie piano worthy of Johnnie Johnson. Jagger’s vocal is slurred and thick, and Charlie Watts rides the beat like a demon. The drums on these tracks are apparently the only instrument that didn’t need any touch up…they were perfect as is. Just more proof that Charlie Watts is a human drum machine. This track is the one that sounds most like a finished song from 1972, and it’s easy to picture it on the album in place of a similar song like “Hip Shake” or “Casino Boogie.” It’s probably why the song was left off the album, because there were other, better, songs of the same style.

Jagger did record brand new vocals and lyrics for “Following The River,” a gospel-infused piano ballad in the style of “Shine A Light.” Recent vocal or not, this is a gem with a sweet and simple backing vocal that sounds like a church choir, and a rousing chorus. If it’s not Nicky Hopkins on the piano it should be. If it is, isn’t it about time someone inducted him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a sideman? The guy was brilliant.

“Dancing In The Light” is another diamond in this rough patch. The elegant country-style guitar picking suggests Mick Taylor and Jagger’s vocal sounds young and strong. Once again, there’s great piano (truly the underrated star of Exile) and the vibe of the song is that of a band that is loose-limbed and having the time of their lives.

A lightly picked guitar that sounds like it’s trying to play the sitar part of “Paint It Black” kicks off “So Divine (Aladdin Story).” It’s another song that sounds like it was mostly figured out in 1972, and features one of the catchiest choruses the Stones have ever done. The ghostly vibes that underpin the melody add a depth to the sound and elevate the song into the realm of the other great tracks from the album.

The next three tracks are alternate versions of Exile tracks. “Loving Cup” is a very different version, slowed down to a crawl. It’s a great curiosity, but inferior to the version used on the album. In his Rolling Stone review of the album, the normally pretty sensible David Fricke wrote:

The highlight of the bonuses is a striking variation on the closer, “Soul Survivor,” sung by Richards instead of Jagger in an enraged bray, as if the guitarist just got up from a vicious beating. I would gladly pay extra to hear a tape of the two debating which version to use.

Frankly this just proves that Fricke was either wasted when he wrote the review or he’s listening to something that I’m not. The Keith Richards vocal on “Soul Survivor” is simply an extemporaneous guide vocal with made up lyrics that are slurred or mumbled deep in the mix. This is not the highlight, David. This is just a rough run through of the song with junk words that were made up on the spot (“I may be a fool/You have my tool…My big blind eye/My swollen nose/Every time she walks by”). Absolutely nothing special here, and I’m sure the “debate over which version to use” lasted approximately one second.

“Good Time Women” dates back to 1969 but is included here because it’s an early version of “Tumbling Dice.” The song’s not there yet, so there’s no surprise it wasn’t used on either Let It Bleed or Sticky Fingers. Most of the lyrics are entirely different and the song sounds like a rehearsal and not a finished track (probably for a pretty good reason). There’s a similarity in the melody to the Exile track, but the track necessarily suffers in comparison to the classic Stones song. It’s very good, and probably better if you’ve never heard “Tumbling Dice,” but it also comes under that heading of “interesting curiosity.”

The last track is a throwaway, a brief instrumental that sounds like nothing more than a loose jam. The song is so unfinished it doesn’t have a real title other than “Title 5.” Still, it’s a good little jam and not a bad way to end the disc of bonus tracks.

As ten songs left over from Exile, the second disc is an excellent addition. As ten Stones songs you’re probably not familiar with, it’s the best album they’ve released in years.

Grade: A

The review of the album Exile On Main St. is here.

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The Rolling Stones: Exile On Main St.

Exile On Main StreetAfter the triumph of the career- and era-defining Sticky Fingers, there was only one way to go. Simply put, you don’t put out a better album than Sticky Fingers. Unless, of course, you’re the Rolling Stones at their peak, in which case you put out a double album that transcends pretty much every album you’ve ever made and almost every rock album made by anyone else, as well. Exile On Main St. is that album.

There’s an enormous amount of mythology wrapped up in the making of Exile. The bare bones of the myth is that the Stones left England to escape onerous taxation, and they set up shop in a mansion in France. Drunk, high, and decadent, they recorded Exile in the basement of the mansion. That’s partially true. They did leave England for tax reasons, and much of Exile was recorded in the basement of Keith Richards’ villa at Nellcôte. There was also an enormous amount of drugs and decadence going around. But the Stones were not sharing a house, and an enormous amount of the final record was recorded, overdubbed, mixed, and mastered in the decidedly less glamorous world of Los Angeles.

With Exile, the mythology of the making of the album is inextricably linked to the final product. The myth of the Stones endlessly working out these songs as a tight five-piece unit in the basement of a French villa, swigging whiskey straight from the bottle, is so evocative because that’s exactly how the album sounds like it should have been recorded. Los Angeles or not, there’s a lot of “basement” vibe on the album. It’s murky, sludgy, dark, and dank. As a recording, it leaves a lot to be desired. As a rock album, it’s one of the best ever made, a collection that isn’t flawless but whose greatness towers above almost every other album of the rock era. There are some artists that have put out albums as good or better, but those albums are few and far between and the artists are the titans of the music business: The Beatles, The Who, Bob Dylan. And even their best only shares the rarefied air of Exile On Main St.

In order to get to the music, one must first get past the artwork that adorns the sleeve. Outside, a collection of photographs of freaks, geeks, and sideshow attractions with the name of the band and the album titled scrawled in what looks like lipstick adorn the front cover while similar photos of the band are on the back. Inside, pictures of the band and scrawled slogans that would turn up, sometimes modified, as lyrics: “I gave you diamonds. You gave me disease.” “Got to scrape the shit right off your shoes.” Mick Jagger stands coyly in front of a movie poster for an X-rated film, a poster that contains a small and very explicit photograph if you look closely enough. The inner sleeves of the album contain more photos, many of them duplicated like a negative of a film roll (the still photos were taken from a film shot by the photographer). The song titles are scrawled with partial information about who plays what instruments. The original version of the album contained 12 inscrutable postcards. All photos in black and white or with a slight color tint. The Stones clearly had gone all out on the packaging, and the cover and sleeves were a perfect manifestation of the music: there is so much going on in the cover it’s hard to know where to look (although almost everyone seems fascinated with the one photo of the man with three oranges in his mouth).

The cover was dark and strange, and the music offered no comfort. Over the course of 18 songs, the Stones take the listener on a tour of the dark underbelly of American music, from Delta blues (a ripping cover of Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down”) to a Southern Gothic gospel (“Shine A Light,” “Just Wanna See His Face”) to true country music (“Sweet Virginia,” “Torn and Frayed”) to barn-busting rock (“Rip This Joint,” “Rocks Off,” “Happy”). Exile, in essence, is a roots album. Unlike, say, Stephen Stills’s similar Manassas album that explored the different types of American music over its four sides, everything on Exile comes out sounding like the work of a band that had so completely absorbed their influences that they have become second nature. “Sweet Virginia” is both 100% American country music and 100% English bad-boy blues rock. It’s a pretty neat trick when you get right down to it, one that few bands have ever replicated and one which the Stones themselves were never able to do again.

There are several hard-charging rock and roll songs on the album. Side one boasts “Rocks Off,” the fearsome ode to the sex and drugs lifestyle being lived on the French Riviera, as well as the souped-up Little Richard blast of “Rip This Joint,” the fastest song in the band’s repertoire to this day. Side three begins with the greatest Keith Richards-led moment in the band’s career, the driving “Happy,” which Richards sings as if his heart was going to explode. In the long, storied life of Keith Richards, “Happy” remains his defining moment: three minutes of sheer exuberance, conceited boasting, and wistful loneliness. The verses of braggadocio and jaded living (“Always took candy from strangers…Never wanna be like papa/Workin’ for the boss…Never got a lift out of Lear jets…”) end in the desperate chorus of “I need a love to keep me happy/Baby, won’t you keep me happy?” This is Keith’s moment to shine on Exile, and shine brightly he does.

Then there is one of Exile‘s most overlooked tracks, “Turd On The Run.” The song will never be played on the radio because of the title alone and it is one of the Stones songs that’s known only to purists and hardcore fans. Musically, it’s essentially a rewrite of “Rip This Joint,” but the lyrics are some of the nastiest that ever came from Jagger’s pen. A tale of obsession and lost love that turns into a wicked revenge story, the lyrics are Jagger at his most sinister. The sex-crazed predator of underage girls from “Stray Cat Blues” and the demonic narrator of “Sympathy For The Devil” merge together as Jagger recounts the time and energy and love he “lost,” becoming increasingly bitter (“Diamond rings, vaseline/You give me disease”) before concluding with a bold threat (“Tie your hands/Tie your feet/Throw you to the sharks/Make you sweat/Make you scream/Make you wish you’d never been.”)

But Exile would probably not have the grand reputation it enjoys today if it were nothing but hard-driving rock tunes. Side two, boasting “Sweet Virginia,” “Torn and Frayed,” “Sweet Black Angel,” and the epic “Loving Cup” is dripping with country elements, from the drunken sing along of “Virginia” to the magisterial pedal steel of “Frayed,” to the acoustic jam of “Angel.” “Loving Cup” is a perfect synthesis of rock ballad, grand piano, and country drinking song. “Gimme little drink! From your loving cup,” drawls Jagger, but the jokey nature of the chorus is undermined by the beauty of the verses and, especially, the bridge where Jagger claims to be “humbled with you tonight/Just sitting by the fire…what a beautiful buzz.” The verses are sweetness and romanticism; the chorus, a good time drinking tune. On paper, it shouldn’t work. On record, it works beautifully. “Loving Cup” is one of the greatest of all Stones songs, mired in the obscurity of being an album track on a densely packed record that most fans of the band in this day and age have probably never heard.

The blues gets its due on Exile, of course. “Stop Breaking Down” has a loose, jammy feel of a well-rehearsed band breaking out a song they all know and love. There’s also a cover of Slim Harpo’s “Hip Shake,” retitled “Shake Your Hips” and an ode to the overheated, stuffy basement at Nellcôte entitled “Ventilator Blues,” the only song in the Stones canon that carries an official co-writing credit for guitar ace Mick Taylor. There’s really nothing all that special about these latter two songs, nor is “Casino Boogie,” the other blues-oriented song from side one, anything to write home about. None of these songs are bad, but they also don’t stand up outside of the context of this messy, sprawling album.

The same is true, in spades, of “I Just Wanna See His Face.” It’s an odd quasi-instrumental jam with extemporaneous lyrics from Jagger about Jesus. Overdubbed backing vocals from Clydie King, Vanetta Fields, Jerry Kirkland add a hint of gospel music, but the song sounds like it belongs on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. As a song, it’s really nothing, yet to my ears it’s crucial to the fabric of Exile. Without it, Exile would be lessened in much the same way that the White Album would suffer if it were to lose throwaways like “Wild Honey Pie” and “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road”. More serious attempts at a gospel vibe are made in “Let It Loose” and “Shine A Light” which both rank in the top-tier of Stones recordings. The songs rock with a steady assurance and a confidence that borders on obscene, but the instrumentation and vocals, particularly the backing vocals, are lifted straight from the churches of the American South.

The remaining tracks also represent the cream of the crop from the Stones. “All Down The Line” and “Soul Survivor” are blistering rockers that bookend side four of the record. “All Down The Line” still gets performed today by the band, despite the fact that it was never a hit and the Stones are nothing if not a traveling greatest hits show when they tour. “Soul Survivor” has a riff so good that it was stolen by Slash for his work on Michael Jackson’s hit single, “Black Or White.” It was also stolen by the Stones themselves, when they reused it in 1983 for “It Must Be Hell.”

Which leaves “Tumbling Dice.” Many critics claim that this is the best song the Stones have ever done. Along with “Happy” it’s the only song from Exile that has managed to achieve “classic” status. It was a Top 10 single in the States, peaking at #7, but it has managed to seep into the consciousness of Stones fans everywhere. It’s a slow, languid groove featuring some incredible guitar from Keith Richards, a seamless merge of Charlie Watts and Jim Miller on drums, and a slow, almost lazy vocal from Jagger that nonetheless manages to perfectly match up with the lyrics. “Tumbling Dice” is the sound of the Rolling Stones and the American blues becoming one and the same.

Exile on Main St. is the Grand Finale of the Rolling Stones. They would release many more albums, some of which were very good, but they would never again climb to these heights. It’s probably not even possible to do. As such, much of their later work suffers for the sole reason that it is compared to Exile, which is unfair. For this reason, Exile stands at the peak of 1970s rock music, yet is also an albatross over the career of the band that made it. It’s no surprise that Mick Jagger is ambivalent about the quality of the album, complaining that it doesn’t sound good and that the mix is terrible. It’s a natural reaction to being told that everything you’ve done for the past 38 years doesn’t match up to what you did back then. But the fact is simply this: Mick Jagger’s denunciations of the album and his confusion about its popularity are just plain wrong.

Grade: A+

Exile has recently been re-released in a deluxe edition with ten extra tracks. These are reviewed separately.

The Listening Post: July 2010

Hot town, summer in the city. The broiling New York July was a time of vacation, and not a lot of listening time.

  • Strange Change MachineThe Grip Weeds. The brand new album by New Jersey’s finest is a 2 CD set with over 80 minutes of music. There is a lot of really good stuff here, but the album suffers from the same problem that plagues most double sets: it should have been pared down. There’s nothing bad on the album. Even the worst songs (the Doors-y instrumental “Sun Ra Ga (Pt. One),” the brief “Green Room Interlude,” the silly “The Law,” the Seventies soft-rock of “Nothing’s Ever Gonna Be The Same” and the fruity “Love In Transition”) are pretty good, but without them the album would have been a 60+ minute powerhouse instead of a meandering 82 minutes. As is typical with the Grip Weeds there’s nothing here that you haven’t heard before. They wear their influences on their sleeves and their tributes to the Sixties and Seventies rock music they love is practically defiant in its brazenness. Continuing their habit of selecting a really choice cover song, they do an excellent reading of “Hello, It’s Me” finding a perfect spot in between the glacier-paced Nazz original and the sped-up kitchen sink production of Todd Rundgren’s hit single. “Hold Out For Tomorrow” manages to geekily tip a hat to the Beatles and the Stones in the same line: “Rubber soles/Worn shoe leather/Pocket full of holes/Kicking over stones/In a moonlight mile.” The aforementioned “Sun Ra Ga (Pt. One)” sounds a lot like the Doors jamming on the Middle Eastern vibe of “The End.” The Byrds-y harmonies appear all over the place, with Kurt Reil’s Keith Moon-influenced drums providing an extra hard rock edge. “Be Here Now,” “Thing Of Beauty,” “Strange Change Machine,” “Coming And Going,” “Hello, It’s Me” and “Long Way (To Come Around)” are the definite peaks, and the majority of the rest provides a lot of great rock ‘n’ roll kicks. The Grip Weeds aren’t particularly original, but their influences are in all the right places and they’re so good you don’t care about originality. There’s a place in the world (the older I get, the bigger that place seems to become) for bands that are more concerned with rocking out with good solid songs than they are with being on the cutting edge of the music scene. Strange Change Machine is about 65 minutes of high-energy, butt-kickin’ rock and roll in a solid classic rock style, and about 15 minutes of reasonably good filler.
    Grade: B+