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Exile on Main St. was released in 1972, their tenth year as a band and that they made it even that far was remarkable, so their recent 50th anniversary milestone is nothing short of a miracle. Many bands face turbulent lives on the road, but the Rolling Stones had already had their share of misfortune, having been arrested for drugs charges, hosting the notoriously disastrous Altamont music festival, and the death of key member Brian Jones. Most bands would probably have waved the white flag after such a bombardment of wild living and bad luck, but while the Stones' tenacity is to be admired, they were sounding very, very tired by the time this record came out.
Sprawled over two discs, Exile on Main St. is a weary celebration of the music that influenced the group. Here, more than on any other Stones album do they wear their influences on their sleeves. Previous album 'Sticky Fingers' was arguably the zenith of Jagger/Richards songwriting, with 90% of its content contender for hit single status. Here they return to gospel, pure blues and country (without forgetting a bit of rock and roll energy here and there), and when I first heard this record I didn't know it was the Rolling Stones, and it's the only time I've ever thought a bunch of British white boys were black American blues men they sound so close to their rhythm and blues roots.
'Rocks Off' does just that. It revs up and hits the road running like a great Stones rock song should, grooving along like 'Bitch'. They don't let up at all on 'Rip This Joint', which has even more energy, and rams in so many American influences into it it's as if they've chopped up the Stars and Stripes and sewn them back together. Fusing New Orleans jazz with bluegrass and rock and roll, in many ways it sums up the album as a whole - it's everything that the Stones embraced. 'Tumbling Dice' closes side one of old, and is the most famous track on here. It's probably also the only song on here which is trademark Stones, with its instantly recognisable hook. It also serves to point out that the rest of 'Exile' is, to all intents and purposes, a rough mix of styles and flavours, without distilling them into hit pop songs. Many critics and fans have hailed this as the definitive Stones album; I'm not so sure. It's the record that defines their influences and roots, in terms of sounds at least. One is almost tempted to call this a covers album of original compositions, if that makes any kind of sense at all. So entrenched is it in visitng the styles the American tapestry of blues, jazz and country artists they admire that they've *almost* forgotten to be themselves in the midst of the sounds they've concocted.
If side on was the beginner's guide to rock and roll, side two is almost entirely country. The wailing harmonica and steel guitar of 'Sweet Virginia' sound like they've come straight from a saloon of the Old West. 'Torn and Frayed' is very similar. Almost too similar, in fact, and one wonders if they're beginning to recycle ideas... 'Sweet Black Angel' is lovely though, a real rarity from such a band. Written in tribute to incarcerated civil-rights movement activist Angela Davis, although Jagger's diction is stereotypically black to be bordering on the racist. Only the subject matter and heartfelt approach save it from being an embarrassment.
Next up is side three, which is very bluesy - it does seem as if the record is split into different quarters to losoely cover a genre. 'Happy' serves as a reminder why Keith Richards should stick to playing the guitar, rather than singing, which unfortunately he's allowed to do here. Thankfully Mick comes in to help out, which is good, cos frankly Keith sounds like a constipated Rod Stewart (who already sounded like he needed more fibre in his diet) and nearly completely ruins an otherwise decent song.
'Ventilator Blues' growls along with its tale of drugs overdose and was surely an influence on Tom Waits. Its southern blues style collides with some bar-room sax and honky-tonk and is one of the strongest tracks here, a cautionary tale of substance abuse on a par with earlier songs 'Sister Morphine' or 'Mother's Little Helper'. But again suffers from poor production as Jagger's vocals get lost in it all. This whole album is very densely recorded, and it is infuriating that so much of these multi-tiered songs is lost to the avalanche of muffled mud that drenches this record. But it sounds like it's made from cut crystal compared with 'Just Wanna See His Face' into which it segues. This really does sound like it was recorded in someone's basement, with some groovy African drums echoing about and smothering the gospel vocals. It's pretty half-baked as well, without much direction. Or if it does have direction, I can't hear it because it's so messy. 'Let It Loose' sees Mick doing his best impression of a southern drawl, and again gospel choir lines float in and out like church incense.
It's been widely lauded as their finest moment on disc, although Mick Jagger has himself expressed some reservations about it with which I agree. It's very shoddily mixed, and the whole thing is tainted with a muddy tonality. It's also unusual in that it doesn't contain too many hit singles for which the Stones were noted - Tumbling Dice the exception. On the whole, I found it just a little too stretched, as most double albums tend to be. Perhaps that's its appeal and the cornerstone of its purpose, that it collides the youthful joys and energy of gospel and rock with a world-weariness and malaise. By side four it's beginning to drag a bit, with 'All Down the Line' doing nothing that 'Rocks Off' and 'Tumbling Dice' hadn't already done, and 'Shine a Light' being a bit forgettable.
I've always been in favour of editing over filler, but to choose what to include on one disc would've been a tough call. It could even have been a triple album, as the 2010 remastered reissue includes another eleven songs. Amongst these are the wonderfully woozy 'Pass the Wine (Sophia Loren) where Keith lags wonderfully behind the beat and the whole thing drips with decadence. 'Plundered My Soul' was released as a digital single to coincide with the reissue and sounds like 'Tumbling Dice' in progress, as does 'Good Time Woman'. 'So Divine' recycles the opening riff to 'Paint It Black' and sounds a bit more like it would be suited to one of their later albums, with Jagger camping it up rather than slumming it out. 'Following the River' is a ballad cut from the same cloth as 'Wild Horses', albeit being predominantly choir and piano-led rather than by country guitar. It does feel out of place with the whole exhausted sleaziness of 'Exile' as a whole, but why they didn't include it on a later album is baffling. There are also the staple alternative versions of songs that often comprise bonus discs namely 'Loving Cup', 'All Down the Line' and 'Soul Survivor' which make for a passably interesting listen.
In all, 'Exile on Main Street' is a great Rolling Stones album, sitting up there as one of their finest efforts along with 'Sticky Fingers', 'Beggar's Banquet', 'Some Girls' and 'Let It Bleed'. But I'm dubious that its status as the definitive Stones album is deserved - I would choose their previous release 'Sticky Fingers' as their best record, as it is a tighter, more focused affair that doesn't drag at any point. This does drag, despite their ability to keep up the quality for the most part. It's also light on the killer singles front, with many songs lacking the brilliant immediacy of their most famous signature tracks.However, if you're interested in exploring the Rolling Stones beyond the plethora of 'Greatest Hits' packages they release every year, this is definitely one for your collection, as well as the others mentioned above. Saxophone player Bobby Keys slots in like a duck to water, and Mick Taylor offers a fine foil to Keith's playing. To be brutally honest, he should never have left as I've never been convinced that Ronnie Wood's contributions were all that great.
This is an album that has been issued and reissued numerous times, with none of them taking the trophy as definitive. The 2010 remaster sounds artificially loud and compressed, without addressing the muddiness. My original vinyl copy sounds mucky, but rumour has it the American version was pressed to a better standard. I've never heard it, so I can't comment. "Oh but its murky basement sound is the heart of its honesty and charm" say some critics. Balls to that I say; it needs sorting out. I like to be able to hear what's going on inside an album, not have to mess with the EQ and volume between tracks and get the right pair of headphones to get close to picking up the bigger picture.
And despite this review ending on a massive whinge from me, it's still a four star album, because it grooves and rocks and emotes more than it outstays its welcome.