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The Rolling Stones - Exile on Main Street (1972)

The Rolling Stones - Exile on Main Street (1972)

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Despite an absence of the band's best-known songs, the sweaty, grimy Exile on Main St. has grown into the Rolling Stones' most universally acclaimed record. Despite dozens of hits, putting together a cohesive album often seemed to be beyond the Stones, tripped up by either manager Allen Klein's publishing-rights parasitism or the band's goofy 1970s hubris. That leaves a catalog in which only Exile is built not on hits but on vibe and: the album's singularly sleazy sound and making-of legend.

To create Exile, the band escaped Britain as tax exiles, decamping to a French villa. Paradoxically, the posh surroundings created the band's rawest effort. They were a heroin-ragged band, jamming late into the night with calloused fingers and vocal cords in a stale basement with sweaty walls. So the best thing a remastered reissue of the record can do is not give the production a bath, a shave, and a haircut. Happily, this new cleanup job doesn't Photoshop out the flaws and flubs, with the band's loose performances still presented in all its debauched glory.

Of course, like most treasured nuggets of rock history, that story is undermined by pesky facts. In Stones in Exile, the documentary released with this 38th anniversary reissue, producer Jimmy Miller talks about isolating each band member in a different room of the villa to make the impromptu studio work. That's a fitting image for the Rolling Stones at the time-- while the band was musically at its peak, it was in practice at its most fractured, with singer Mick Jagger and bassist Bill Wyman barely involved for the bulk of the recording. The Exile we know and love is actually the hybrid product of two sessions, two bands really: the Keith Richards-led material from NellcГґte shotgun-wed to the Los Angeles gospel dabbling of Jagger and co-conspirator, keyboardist and former Beatles collaborator Billy Preston.

In a way though, Jagger's lack of involvement may have been the key to Exile's success (and probably explains his oft-voiced dislike of the record). With Richards at the helm, the record sounds closest to the American roots music the band relentlessly name-dropped. Vocally, Richards' nasal whine fights for space with Jagger more than anywhere else in their history, adding thrillingly imperfect harmonies. The rest of the supporting cast also gets more of the spotlight: the brilliant barrelhouse piano of Nicky Hopkins singlehandedly defines "Loving Cup" and "Torn and Frayed", Mick Taylor adds counterpoint leads and the toodling bassline of "Tumbling Dice", Al Perkins' pedal steel and Bobby Key's sax contributes soul and country cred.

But despite his relative absence, Jagger's contributions on the back half of the record give Exile its dramatic arc. Though the album's concept record status has always been somewhat oversold, the plot does chart a rough path from drunken late-night revelry to next-day regret: The last third of the record looks back on the first two-thirds with a wince and a headache. "I Just Want to See His Face", "Let It Loose", "Shine a Light"-- there's a profound need for redemption here unique to the Stones, an odd moment of guilt for a band known for consequence-free sexual bluster. As the last complete sentence of the album says, "you're going to be the death of me."

Unlike the album proper, the bonus tracks are given a clean scrubbing, and it's blatantly obvious in places that Jagger's vocals are circa 2009, not 1972. That added grooming offers the experimental results of an Exile sans NellcГґte-- still a band in the zone, but more Jagger-dominant and sterilized. Still, many of the unreleased songs work: "Plundered My Soul", wins on the merits of its goofy, falsetto backing vocals, and "So Divine (Aladdin Story)" is like a pastiche of Aftermath-era Stones played by an older, saltier band.

If allowing Jagger to touch up those vocals was the price to pay to allow Exile receive the tribute it deserves, it's still a bargain. All the same, it's a bit strange to see the Stones, somehow still alive, on the talk show circuit celebrating the product of their darkest years, treating their addictions, tax evasion, and near-breakup as just a colorful set piece on Rolling Stones: The Ride. The true thrill of Exile on Main St. is that it doesn't require all that backstory to be dramatized and Ken Burns-ed-- all the pain, fun, joy, and regret of being the biggest rock band on Earth, kinda loving it and kinda hating it, is right there in the filthy grooves of the record. Oh, what a beautiful buzz.

— Rob Mitchum, May 19, 2010

The album code is : ODI159606

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