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