Thursday, May 20, 2010

CD Review - Rolling Stones Exile on Main Street Reissue

Even though Exile on Main Street is my favorite Stones release hands down, I had not heard the album all the way through in quite some time. Growing up, I used to practice playing leads to this album, since almost all the songs are in the same key (A), and I could practice my Pentatonic scales to almost all of it. To this day, when someone throws a song at me that goes from A to D, all my Exile licks come out!

Exile is a bit of a weird choice of albums to remaster and repackage since its beauty is how gritty the thing is – among other things, the album is notorious for being recorded in Keith Richards' basement when the band was living in France as tax exiles in the early 70s. The basement had no ventilation or natural light and was basically a total shithole. The tales of drug use and debauchery, while probably exaggerated, go hand in hand with the basement legend.

But this remastered version is crisp and certainly benefited from digital transfer with modern technology, just like The Beatles remasters from last year.

Regarding this grittiness, when you get down to it only about half of the 18 tracks were recorded in Keith’s basement, and all the vocals were laid down in L.A. But this just shows that it’s not necessarily the place, but the general vibe of the band that is etched on this release. The album embodies blues based rock and roll and also seeps with a druggy undertone and groovy rawness. Is it Charlie’s slinky beats? Mick Taylor’s shimmering slide parts? Keith’s thin, creepy backup vocals or grungy rhythm guitar? Or is it Mick Jagger, who vacillates between a full bore coke-induced jittery screaminess (Rip This Joint, All Down The Line) and downer induced lethargy (Torn and Frayed, I Just Want To See His Face)?

I dunno. It might be the guest musicians who push it over the top. Billy Preston on organ, Nicky Hopkins on piano, Bobby Keys, sax. Those guys add as much to the vibe as the rest of the Stones. Anyway, if you have not grooved on this album in a long time (or – gasp – ever!), you owe it to yourself to do so stat.

The bonus CD of 10 unreleased tracks from the sessions is pretty cool. New old Stones. New songs Alive and Kicking, and Plunder My Soul are both worthy of inclusion on Exile, despite the fact that the vocals were clearly recorded this year, not 40 years ago. But the music is swampy and gritty, with dirty harmonica, honking baritone sax and barroom piano.

The other new songs (I’m Not Signifying, Following the River, Dancing In The Light, So Divine) are OK but you can see why they were left off the original album release. I’m Not Signifying has some sweet slide guitar and dirty blues harp interplay over a slow bluesy shuffle that never really seems to lock until the end when slightly out of key New Orleans-esque horns come in and Charlie moves to the ride.

Following the River sounds like the not quite as developed bastard cousin of Shine A Light – music is better than the lyrics here but nothing really special until, again, the band kicks it up at the end of the song. Dancing In The Light is a pretty good upbeat tune with all sorts of snapping Telecaster leads. I could hear this one of the original release but they probably ran out of space, and it meanders a bit. So Divine starts out with a variation of the Paint It Black lick and carries on for four and a half more minutes. Snooore.

Then we get to the alternate takes of Loving Cup and Soul Survivor. Loving Cup is much slower and frankly sounds like an outtake from Beggars Banquet, which is a very good thing. Killer to hear this. Soul Survivor is also a real gem, with Keith taking the lead vocals here, singing totally different lyrics from Mick’s version on the original album. Kind of a trip.

The next tune, Good Time Women, is a working version of Tumblin Dice and has the signature lick in the chorus. Very cool tune that reminds me of Taj Mahal for some reason. The final song, Title 5, is short and sweet and is almost like the Stones doing a surf shuffle instrumental. A bit of an offshoot of Rip This Joint, but not as good.

My Best Buy version came with a second bonus CD with audio interviews from all the Stones on the album (Jagger, Watts, Richards, Taylor and Bill Wyman and nothing from Ron Wood). Truth be told I bought this release partly for this disc so I could hear the band share their stories of the album (esp Taylor and Wyman who are no longer in the band). In retrospect, it's interesting but not a must-have.

Overall, the re-issue sounds fantastic and provides enough solid bonus material to make this a must-have for fans of rock and roll and certainly fans of Mick and da boyz. Get it!

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