Even with a digital cleaning, 'Exile' oozes unchecked genius
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
The cover is a near-indecipherable collection of photos, with the band and album title scrawled in the upper right corner. Of the four sides of music, one was we now call classic rock. One was a collection of rough blues sketches. One was a study in serious, sturdy blues. And the final brought it home with gospel and soul at its core. It was like nothing that had come before it, even though it drew so heavily from everything before. It still sounds nothing like anything that has followed, not by any other artist, nor the band that created it.
At its core, Exile on Main St. is the finest collection of moments the 1970s had to offer. The Rolling Stones, then as now, were a smooth, slick operation without peer, if we’re talking on the grounds of pure capitalism. Forget their current state as the occasional conquerors of football stadiums around the world, prancing about on million-dollar stages before bigger-than-big LED screens for $400 a head. In 1972, they might not have been the most exciting band (Led Zeppelin, the Who) or the most fun (the Faces, likely). They were, however, the most successful. They had built up their empire, successfully incorporating the notion of themselves as “The Greatest Rock ‘N’ Roll Band In The World” into sold-out tours that became scenes unto themselves. On stage, they were able to back it up as they never had before or since. From 1969 to 1973, with Mick Taylor’s blazing leads and Keith Richards’ not-yet-debilitated playing at its peak, the Stones were a rough-and-tumble machine, living the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle while making the best music of their lives, music that will live on years after their final plasma-screen-driven tour rolls to a halt.
Their peak came in 1972. Coming off their first album on their own Rolling Stone Records imprint, the fantastic Sticky Fingers, Richards was beginning what would become a frightful existence for much of the decade, culminating in his 1978 arrest in Toronto on possession of heroin. But, in the meantime, there they were, in the south of France, the entire band and several friends and well wishers holed up in Richards’ basement.
What emerged was, with many apologies to the White Album, Quadrophenia and Physical Graffiti, the ultimate double album, a record so perfectly sequenced by mood into four sides of muffled genius, a record that channelled the best of rhythm and blues while pushing the entire genre into a region rock had never seen. It’s often said that the Stones needed the Beatles to break up before they could finally feel free to venture in their own direction. On Exile on Main St., they go off in just about every direction they’d ever wanted. Blues. Rock. Country. Soul. Early funk. All present, and all presented under a production cloud of the ramshackle assemblage. It’s literally hard to hear what’s happening sometimes. It was recorded in such a way as to forever be shrouded in mystery.
So the idea of cleaning up Exile on Main St. seemed so contrary to the whole spirit of the record. I was skeptical. That murk that lies above the surface of “Shake Your Hips” and “Sweet Virginia?” That is Exile on Main St. So, it was with a slight bit of trepidation, but mostly excited curiosity, that I plunked down $21.99 (plus tax) for the double CD re-release of an album so pivotal in my life.
The verdict? Fantastic. For all of the missteps the Stones seem to always make in their career (and sure enough, they don’t bat 1.000 here, either), the cleaned-up Exile is just about perfect. The remastering team did an excellent job of giving just a little more life to each of the instruments and the vocals (especially the backing vocals of whoever was around at a given session), while keeping that underwater aesthetic in tact. It still sounds and feels like Exile on Main St. It just sounds better than you’ve ever heard it. A tough road to navigate, and they pull it off expertly.
What isn’t quite as effective is the bonus disc of 10 songs from the sessions, also cleaned up and remastered for the 21st century. More than cleaned up, however, as Mick Jagger thought it necessary to re-record many of his vocals on the first few songs. What’s the result? Well, if this were in a vaccuum, I’d say it was a success, because all of the songs are good. Certainly, they’re better than 90% of what has been released by the band since, say, 1989’s Steel Wheels. But try as he might, 66-year-old Mick Jagger cannot sing like 27-year-old Mick Jagger. His voice hasn’t lost all that much, but it’s a well-honed instrument now, not the unchecked animal it was in the early '70s. Exile on Main St. was an album made by five musicians and a slew of friends who were utterly without boundaries and accountability to authority. Many of these songs are made by professional, comfortable musicians. They may be the same people, but the feeling could never be. Playing these songs next to the original 18 never quite feels right.
So, in the spirit of the Stones, the entire package is a mixed bag. I’m intrigued by they deluxe vinyl edition, but the $140 price tag is a bit too prohibitive, also in the spirit of the Stones. The bonus tracks are good and enjoyable, but not indispensable. But all of that is rendered moot by the original album, scrubbed yet unsullied by the digital processing, given new life nearly 40 years after it was haphazardly yet perfectly compiled. Listen to this, and you’ll listen to perhaps the finest two pieces of vinyl to emerge from the Me Decade, given just enough of a face lift to make you appreciate how, for all-too-brief a moment, the Rolling Stones really were the greatest band in the world, able to accomplish anything and everything they wanted.