CK Retro Review: Exile On Main St. by The Rolling StonesPosted: November 6, 2015
It was recorded in a dank basement in France and shiny studios in Los Angeles in sessions where the lineups never seemed to be the same from one day to the next. Even the singer of most of the songs on the album has been reluctant to crown it the classic everyone else says it is (Mick Jagger has always been a bit meh about it in interviews.) As disheveled as its predecessor Sticky Fingers was polished, 1972’s Exile On Main St is the illogical conclusion of The Rolling Stones back-to-roots foray following the psychedelia of the late 60’s. Murkily produced and often written and recorded on the fly, it’s held together with grit, spit, and various other unsavory substances. And once you put on the first song, you’re not gonna want to stop it until it concludes about an hour or so down the road and you’re soaked in its glorious muck. Here is a song-by-song review:
18. “Turd On The Run”- It’s raucous and lively, but it gets a bit lost compared to all the other blues-rockers on the album. Maybe if that title had actually appeared in the song, it might have been another story.
17. “Casino Boogie”- An attempt at William Burroughs literary cut-up style makes for some memorable, nonsensical lyrical juxtapositions. And Keith Richards, giving Bill Wyman one of his periodic breaks as bassist, provides a feisty bottom end.
16. “All Down The Line”- Some great slide work from Mick Taylor and punchy horns help distinguish what otherwise might have been a generic addition to a long line of rock train songs. It doesn’t quite have the lunatic gene contained within a lot of these songs, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.
15. “Shake Your Hips”- It’s to the band’s credit that a song in which they sound like they’re just kind of warming up holds up so well. Slim Harpo’s original was an excellent starting point, and Jagger does innuendo-laced lyrics like few others.
14. “Sweet Black Angel”- Jagger’s ode to civil rights activist Angela Davis, who was facing murder charges when the song was released, leavens its politically-charged content with the breeziness of the arrangement. You don’t need to know what’s going on with the lyrics to groove to the rhythmic vibrancy.
13. “I Just Want To See His Face”- Nothing but a jam that takes Jimmy Miller’s muddy mixing techniques to the extreme, but it’s still fascinating. It’s reminiscent of the kind of weird interstitial that The Beatles were fond of sticking on their late-period albums, something mysterious that leaves fans wanting more.
12. “Soul Survivor”- Another one that’s hard to grasp but all the more intriguing for being so. The striated riffs play well off Jagger’s tale of being stuck to somebody who’s leading him to oblivion. Maybe he was referencing music, maybe a spiteful lover, maybe even Keith. In any case, it makes for an off-kilter closer, because what other kind of closer would this album have?
11. “Torn And Frayed”- One of several songs on the album that take in a whole bunch of genres. The pedal steel of Al Perkins keeps pulling it toward Nashville, but there’s a lot of R & B in the groove as well. The Stones might have come off as cooler-than-thou, but a quick parsing of Jagger’s lyrics here shows a rock-and-roller full of anguish and self-doubt. But he, like the song, manages to “steal your heart away” in the end.
10. “Stop Breaking Down”- It’s funny to think that Keith Richards is nowhere to be found on this Robert Johnson cover. The rest of the boys handle the job brilliantly though, let by Jagger’s wailing harmonica and Taylor’s fiery slide. Taking Johnson’s intense, stark original and maxing out on the electric potential, this indeed will bust your brain out, in the best possible way of course.
9. “Rip This Joint”- Maybe it’s for the best that Jagger was singing way too fast to understand here, otherwise the censors would have had a field day. The lyrics are not nearly as important as the way Mick delivers them, which is like Little Richard with a hotfoot. Stand-up bassist Bill Plummer and Charlie Watts keep the pedal down with precision, while the other players hustle to keep up. Bobby Keys adds the coup de grace with his sax solo. Take a deep breath and you’ll miss it.
8. “Let It Loose”- So many great things going on here. Starting with Richards’ wobbly arpeggio, we get Nicky Hopkins’ graceful piano work, a cast of thousands (including Dr. John) on backing vocals, majestic horns which elevate the soul, and Jagger giving a performance that leaves nothing in the tank. How about some love for Jimmy Miller for making it all come together?; the juggling act that he pulls off not just for this song but for the entire album, taking thechaos and steering into the curve to come away with idiosyncratic magic, is stellar.
7. “Loving Cup”- Again, you can’t pin this one down, so your best bet is to follow where it leads you. Jagger plays a convincing bumpkin, which makes you think this should be country. But the chorus hits gospel heights, and then there’s the horn outro which takes us down to New Orleans. Exile is a great example of what happens when musicians ask “Why not?” instead of “Why?” “Loving Cup” is the epitome of that phenomenon.
6. “Sweet Virginia”- It sounds like there’s about a dozen people out on a porch trying to make coherent music after drinking way too much. In actuality it’s just the five band members with Ian Stewart on piano and Keys with an incongruous yet winning sax solo. There are about 19 drug references in there but the whole thing comes off a lot more benign than that. And besides, everybody probably passed out right after the final notes, so there’s no harm done.
5. “Ventilator Blues”- The looseness of Exile is part of its charm, but this song, inspired in part by the congested conditions in which it was created, is all sharp edges. From that bizarre belching riff that starts the thing to Charlie Watts sawed-off shotgun snares, this blues is not for the timid. Jagger spits out the album’s toughest lyrics, full of fractured body parts and inclinations to murder. But the key element here is how the band steps up the musical intensity to meet the world’s assault; “Gonna fight it”, Jagger promises over and over again at song’s end. The depth of the menace and the defiance in the face of it is riveting.
4. “Happy”- The songs that Richards writes and sings lead with the Stones generally fall into two categories: the mischievous rockers and the wounded-heart ballads. This one is mostly the former, but there’s a bit of the latter in the narrator’s admission that his happiness is dependent on the strength of his romantic relationships. It’s got a standout riff to wake you up, and the horns keep you juiced. Jagger lends support at the end, but Richards is more believable as the hell-raiser with a heart of gold.
3. “Shine A Light”- The Stones could have gone on without addressing Brian Jones death, but it makes for a sweeter story that they finally did with this inspiring track. Billy Preston turned Jagger on to the gospel signifying that defines the song in its final form, and he adds integral work on keyboards. Mick Taylor also takes the song heavenward with a heartfelt guitar solo for the guy he replaced. Jagger grants Jones a wonderful afterlife, one in which he charms the angels and hears his favorite song on endless repeat. The fact that Mick doesn’t sugarcoat how hard Brian had fallen in life makes that imagined rebirth even more glorious.
2. “Tumbling Dice”- Well it has the most hooks, so right there you can understand why it’s the most popular track on the album. But it manages to be accessible without sacrificing the loose-limbed approach to the entire affair. The fact that this was the song on the album that took the band the longest to get right is never evident in the finished product; it sounds like they rolled out of bed, Keith hit that first riff, and they were off. It’s almost too good to be a hit, if that makes any sense.
1. “Rocks Off”- It starts off with a workmanlike riff, but Mick gives it his seal of approval with an “Oh yeah.” Watts kicks everything into gear and Wyman provides more melodic punch than usual in the trenches. With the low part in good hands, the horns can afford to get spicy, as in mariachi spicy. Meanwhile Hopkins provides the boogie with his piano sneaking around the mix. Jagger somehow sums up the whole album here; not even ballerina sex is doing much for him, but his dreams do the trick. It’s a sly commentary on the emptiness of rock star excess, another case of the Stones’ message contrasting their stereotype. The moment when the hazy bridge explodes into the screaming last verse is one of their finest. Shambolic perfection.
(E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @JimBeviglia. Counting Down The Rolling Stones: Their 100 Finest Songs arrives this month; preorder it with the link below.)