Rolling Stones: Exile on Main Street

I should probably preface this by saying that, for me, this one’s personal.

My generation started out with a competition between London and Liverpool: you were either a Beatles person or a Stones person, up until the day the Beatles retired and the Stones didn’t. As it happens, I’ve always been a Stones woman, so I didn’t have to switch allegiance.

There are, literally, billions of Stones fans. Of the six or so albums that make up the legendary Stones run, perhaps none has more of a partisan following than Exile on Main Street. There are those who consider it the best rock album ever made; while it’s not my personal favourite of that handful of monster releases (I’ll take Beggar’s Banquet), Exile is, in many ways, literally rock of ages. 

So, when the Stones announced a remastered version with ten unreleased tracks earlier this year, there were shrieks of delight, howls of outrage, and a couple of long hard gulps from those of us Stones freaks who didn’t know what to expect. My own first thought: ten new tracks, at least some of them will have Nicky Hopkins on piano. That ought to make it work, no matter what else they do to the album.

I was right. Of the ten new songs, eight of them feature that perfect gorgeous cascade of sound that only Nicky could produce. Even if the rest of the remaster had been rubbish, that alone would have been worth the price of admission.

As it happens, it’s not rubbish.

With nearly forty years’ deep familiarity with the original, I listened to the remastered version. Yes, there are differences: things are crisper, cleaner. It shows up in small subtle ways, but also in startling places (Bobby Keyes and Jim Price, handling the horn section, are suddenly much brighter in places where they were way back in the mix on the original). Overall, I think I prefer the casual swampy grit and heat of the original, but yes, the new flavour offers some of those nice surprises. And of course, there are those ten new tracks.

Ah, those tracks. I’ll say upfront that, no, they don’t all work. What’s billed as an “alternate version” of “Loving Cup”, for instance, is no more than a sloppy basement rehearsal tape, one which would have been better left in the vault. After all, if you can’t bring anything fresh to shine a light on a song, why go there?

But the ones that do work are brilliant. “Pass The Wine” is everything that I love about Exile in its original form: you can taste the decadence, Jagger just breathing it out, exuding it like sweat: pass the wine and let’s make a little love. “Plundered My Soul” might be heartbroken if anyone else on earth was singing it, but coming from the Stones, it’s tongue in cheek and wickedly smoky. “I’m Not Signifying” is one half Jagger’s vocal and one half Hopkins’ piano: it really doesn’t need anything else, although having Charlie Watts laying down the timing certainly doesn’t hurt anything.

The real killer, though, is “Following the River”. This one soars, between the piano, Jagger’s storytelling, and the incredible backup vocals from Clydie King and the crew. It’s jawdropping.

“Dancing in the Light” is just, well, fun. Again, it works because it evokes the sun-drenched days at Villa Nellcote in Villefranche-sur-Mer, the entire vibe of the time: after all, they really were exiles. Mick takes the vocal all the way over the top—the piano here is crunchy honky-tonk. From the sound of it, it’s being offered up by Ian Stewart.

“So Divine (Aladdin Story)” is an addictive oddity of a song. The opening notes sound as if Keith Richards is recycling “Paint It Black”, but the song quickly morphs into something very different, punctuated by what sounds like a triangle being hit at odd arrhythmic moments. And while the alternate “Loving Cup” doesn’t work for me, the alternate version of “Soul Survivor” really is an entirely different song, thanks to the vocals. Comparing the two side by side is an interesting experience. “Good Time Women” is an odd side alley from “Tumbling Dice”, but one in which Jagger’s vocal sounds like self-parody. And “Title 5”, rounding out the list, is a minute and a half of high-octane instrumental oddity that somehow evokes rockabilly.

So, as an old-time Stones woman, which do I prefer? I don’t know. It’s not so much apples and oranges as tarte tatin versus baked Alaska: they’re both apples, but the flavours are different enough on the audio palate to make a straight-up comparison tricky. Given a choice between them, I’d go with the re-release, because having been given the incredibly nifty gift of nine out of ten of those previously unreleased songs, I’m damned if I’m giving them back anytime soon.

-Deborah Grabien

(UME Direct [Promotone B.V. under exclusive license to Universal International Music B.V.]), 2010)

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