Music Reviews

posted: May 17, 2010

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Stones box set Exile On Main Street: Super Deluxe Edition

Universal 2LP, 2CD, DVD and Book
Stones box set

If any record ever deserved the deluxe reissue treatment, it’s the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. Given mixed reviews upon release in 1972, the double album has deservedly assumed an immortal place in music history. Commonly viewed as the English band’s greatest effort, it is often cited as one of (if not the) best rock records ever made. Evidence of the icon 18-track set’s greatness is supported by the fact that few ever argue its merit. While the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, and Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited—all commonly cited as among the gold standard in pop lore—inspire debate, Exile on Main Street rarely fields any detractors.

Mastered from the original tapes and experienced on both vinyl and digital via Universal’s Super Deluxe reissue, the album has never sounded so vital, loose, transparent, present, or alive. And none of the trademark dirt, rawness, and swagger have been sacrificed. Casual fans that don’t want to shell out $179 (list) for the gorgeous box can enjoy the peerless record on either remastered CD (complete with a bonus disc) or standalone LP. Those that spend the extra money get both formats, a book, and a 30-minute DVD with snippets from the Cocksucker Blues, Ladies and Gentlemen…The Rolling Stones, and Stones In Exile documentaries. The footage of the Stones creating and milling about guitarist Keith Richards’ French mansion in Nellcote is invaluable; it’s too bad we’re not given more. Ditto the live footage from the 1972 tour. For the price, listeners deserve all of the treasures that can be unearthed.

A 64-page hardcover book gets it right. Outstanding period photos function as windows into the sessions and the infamous vibes and parties that surrounded the Stones’ 1971 summer in exile in Southern France; the visual reproduction quality is excellent. Current recollections from the Stones are mixed in with older statements to supply perspective. Anthony DeCurtis’ short essay brings the album’s situational context (the Stones fled England due to unpaid taxes stemming from poor management) into focus, as well as the unique manner in which it was recorded—via a mobile truck parked out front the mansion’s basement that, akin to Woodstock’s Big Pink, served as the unlikely albeit character-rich setting for some of the most legendary sounds ever put on tape.

However, anyone expecting to learn about the mysteries and myths that have long pervaded Exile on Main Street are bound to be slightly dismayed. Richards and company’s vague allusions to the non-stop parties that occurred on the mansion’s third floor, the liquor- and drug-fueled environments, the all-night performance sessions, and the impromptu mix-and-match lineups that saw Richards occasionally sit in on bass and horn players Bobby Keys and Jim Price play random instruments serve only to deepen the intrigue. What exactly happened? How, in the midst of such chaos, did the songs get written? How did Richards’ preference for spontaneous activity jibe with singer Mick Jagger’s structured demeanor? Did “Tumbling Dice” arrive as quickly as “Happy” (penned and recorded in just a few hours) or “Ventilator Blues,” the latter developed on the spot as a reaction to the basement’s suffocating humidity, inferior ventilation, and jungle-level heat? To paraphrase a hanger-on who recalls the sessions on the DVD: How in the hell did the Stones and their friends operate in such conditions and, quite simply, get it all done?

The ten previously unreleased bonus tracks (not available on LP) don’t provide any definitive answers. Nonetheless, the songs are fantastic, easily topping anything the Stones have released in decades—not a huge surprise. The sleazy “Good Time Women” (a precursor to “Tumbling Dice”), ragged “I’m Not Signifying,” soulful “Plundered My Soul,” and vehement kiss-off “So Divine (Aladdin’s Story)” join alternate takes of “Soul Survivor” and “Loving Cup” as mandatory fare. As does the beautiful, forlorn piano ballad “Follow the River.” Yet, most of these tracks come with an historical asterisk. Rather than present them in as-is condition, Jagger elected to overdub vocals on a majority of songs, and in spots, added guitar, percussion, and harmonica. The results are strong but not genuinely representative of the Exile recording.
At every juncture, it seems the Stones willfully suppress anything that would shed too much light on the process. The absence of plentiful bonus material—scour the bootleg market to get an idea of just how much is available, especially given that the tapes were said to be continually rolling—fuels the notion that the group is intent on keeping many secrets despite the fact that such revelations would boost Exile’s status, lore, and enjoyment. Unfortunately, unlike lavish box sets such as The Stooges’ Complete Funhouse Sessions that allow music lovers to literally trace songs’ development and origins, the Exile on Main Street reissue teases when it comes to breadth and scope.
Does the lack of more meaningful knowledge matter? Or, does it actually enhance the original music so expertly arrayed across four sides of vinyl? If anything, the reissue makes stronger any case for arguing Exile on Main Street as the penultimate rock n’ roll album. And why not, given that it’s a decidedly British take filtered through a thick, rootsy American lens. Never again did the Stones draw so extensively from the American South—or dig down so deep.

Organized so that songs are cohesively bunched together according to style—uninhibited boogie, dusty country, haunting blues, and redemptive gospel, all of which are tethered to early rock n’ roll and spirited soul foundations—the album is a roundhouse of swinging rhythms, off-the-cuff arrangements, ghostly atmospherics, and communal grit. As DeCurtis observes in his liner notes, every song is firmly connected to the one that proceeds and follows it; skipping ahead to a certain track on the record robs the music of some of its impeccable allure.

Thematically, much has always been made of the Stones’ ability to move beyond the 60s’ hippie dreaminess and into an edgier, seamier territory that nonetheless doesn’t close the doors to salvation. The transition isn’t only due to the era (and the band’s direct involvement at Altamont), but the tax problems that forced the band to relocate and the sticky confines in which the music was recorded.

And it’s this murky, dark, dank sense of place that Universal’s multimedia reissue excels at producing, as the remastered sonics reveal just how much grime, sweat, and dampness cling to the grooves. The full-time availability of a horn section—a benefit of the living quarters and haphazard work schedules—is reflected in its appearance on a bulk of the album. Jagger’s vocals are kept low in the mix (which, thankfully, wasn’t touched on the remaster), putting him on equal footing with music that’s more about feel than punch, dynamics, or pop appeal. Rock, and the Stones, would never be the same again.
Maybe one day the full story will be told and heard. Until then, Exile on Main Street: Super Deluxe Edition gets us a little closer to that dirty Nellcote basement but no nearer to the conversations, exchanges, and festivities that took place during that long, hot summer.

Pub. Note: We’d like to thank Josh Bizar at Music Direct for getting us copies of this release a few days before street date, so that we could get this review out in a timely fashion…

–Bob Gendron