A case could be made that Exile on Main Street (Universal) is the greatest rock and roll album ever made. After all, it’s got everything, from the full-tilt boogie of “Rip This Joint,” to the otherworldly blues of Slim Harpo’s “Shake Your Hips,” and the terrifying voodoo of the savage “Ventilator Blues.” There is the very noticeable influence of Gram Parsons (very much a part of the Stones camp in those days) on “Sweet Virginia,” and especially “Torn and Frayed.” Then there is “Tumbling Dice” which is arguably the greatest single ever made. If you can listen to the song without throwing your arms into the air and singing along ecstatically, check your pulse. The album’s only other single was the equally joyous “Happy,” which features a lead vocal from Keith Richards. A great Charlie Watts performance puts “Loving Cup” on the map, and I haven’t even mentioned the classic pure Stones tracks “All Down the Line,” “Stop Breaking Down,” and “Shine A Light.”
The gatekeepers savaged Exile when it was released in 1972. They said that Jagger’s vocals were too low in the mix, and that you couldn’t understand the lyrics. The whole thing was said to be sloppy and unfocused. Of course all the naysayers now pretend that they hailed Exile as a masterpiece when it was released. Bullshit. I guess they figure that most people weren’t around to read those original reviews. I was. What they were really reviewing were the tales of excess coming out of Keith Richards’ place in Nellcote, France, where the album was recorded in part. Then there was the Altamont hangover to consider. The Stones were blamed for that tragedy, then still fresh in the mind, and in some quarters still are. The bottom line is that Exile on Main Street was a great album then, and it’s a great album now.
So it really comes down to two questions. First, has the remastering of the original album improved the sound appreciably? I’m no audiophile, and Exile was never meant to sound all clean and shiny, but yes, I think the album sounds even better now. A little bit of the murk has been removed, but nothing that in any way alters the artist’s original intentions. And clearly the Stones intended for the album to sound just as it did. Do you really think that engineers of the stature of Glyn and Andy Johns couldn’t have given the band whatever sound they wanted? For the reissue it’s as if a polishing cloth has been lightly applied to a dusky gem.
The really big news here is the release of ten previously unheard Stones tracks from the era. So the second question is whether those ten tracks are worthy of sitting alongside the original album’s 18 tracks. Most, but not all, of the bonus tracks have been left exactly as they were originally recorded. According to Richards, “There wasn’t much to be done and I really didn’t want to get in the way of what was there. It was missing a bit of body here and there, and I stroked something on acoustic here and there. But otherwise, I really wanted to leave them pretty much as they were. Mick wanted to sort of fix some vocal things, but otherwise, basically they are as we left them 39 years ago. Mick did need to sing an actual vocal on “Plundered My Soul” because there wasn’t one and Mick Taylor also recorded lead and rhythm guitar in London.”
Clearly the most attention has been paid to “Plundered My Soul,” with its brand new Jagger vocal, and who knows what else. The song is a fully-formed, brand new Rolling Stones track that in my opinion would have been worthy of inclusion on the original album had they finished it at the time. The gospel-infused “Following the River” is as emotional a ballad as the Stones have ever recorded. There is some outstanding guitar work on “Dancing In the Light.” I found “So Divine (Aladdin Story),” with a riff that recalls “Paint It Black,” and the ambience of something from Their Satanic Majesties Request, a bit cloying, but it’s still full of interesting stuff. There are worthy alternate versions of “Loving Cup,” and “Soul Survivor” (with an amusing placeholder vocal from Richards) from the original album. “Good Time Woman” is a rehearsal for “Tumbling Dice,” and “Take 5” is a short instrumental that is reminiscent of the Stones earliest efforts.
Look, it’s not as if Exile on Main Street is one of those albums that’s been re-released over and over. In fact, this is the first time it’s ever been remastered and re-released. So yes, you need to have this. No, you don’t have to buy the Super Deluxe Edition, which is overkill for most people. The plain old two-disc Deluxe Edition will do just fine.
Calling yourselves the “World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band” is a risky business. It makes you a target, and raises the stakes on every album you release, and every show you play. With all love and respect to Brian Jones, this is the Stones at their peak. The guitar interplay between Keith Richards and Mick Taylor alone is worth the price of admission. Exile on Main Street, the tenth Stones album, is the one that saw the band returning to the blues roots that marked their very beginnings, and found them equal to their self-imposed title and then some.
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