Classic Rock Review

The home of old record and bootleg reviews…

The Rolling Stones Exile On Main Street (1972)


This album actually received mixed reviews upon its release, but today it has pride of place among all Rolling Stones albums on most all-time greatest albums lists. In turn, this has led many in recent years to claim that the album is overrated, which if you look at the above rating you’ll know that I think is complete nonsense!

So, what makes this album so great? Well, it’s hard to define, exactly; the album contains no all-time classic tracks like “Sympathy For The Devil,” “Gimme Shelter,” or “Brown Sugar,” and there are several tracks that I wouldn’t vehemently disagree against if you referred to them as filler.

But Exile is its own self-contained world like few albums, and therein lies its magic, as even the most flawed songs generally add to the overall ambiance of the album. So I guess I was wrong in my Satanic Majesties review when I said that it was the only Stones album that was more about sound than songs – the difference is that this album has tons of great songs too.

As for the sound, well, who isn’t aware of the album’s murky sound quality, courtesy of Richards’ villa basement in the South of France (where they were tax exiles due to money problems)? The raw, dirty sound actually works to the band’s benefit, and the Stones wrote a diverse batch of songs that dip into r&b, blues, soul, country, gospel, and ragged rock n’ roll with equal assuredness.

Also, Jagger sings with an uncommon force and directness, even if his unintelligible lyrics are often buried amid the raging rhythms and slashing guitar interplay (you could argue that this album represented Richards and Taylor’s peak as a guitar team). Once again session stalwarts such as Nicky Hopkins, Billy Preston (if the organ has a church-y sound it’s probably Preston rather than Hopkins), Bobby Keyes, and Jim Price play a key role in colouring the albums incredibly rich overall sound, which also includes many a soulful female backing vocalist.

Still, it is the band’s airtight rhythms, even when grungily applied, that anchors their sound, and Keith also aids with some emotional backing vocals as per usual. As for individual song highlights, “Rocks Off” and “All Down The Line” are simply great groove rockers, “Rip This Joint” delivers a pure adrenalized blast of rock n’ roll, “Sweet Virginia” is a soulful, countrified sing along, and “Ventilator Blues” (Taylor’s only credited co-write with the band) is a bluesy, brassy stomper on which Mick sounds all hot and bothered and the guitars really cook.

“Tumbling Dice,” with its memorable riffs and catchy backing chants, is the album’s best known song for good reason, and “Happy,” a gloriously surging rocker, similarly earns its distinction as being Keith’s signature vocal showcase. The band’s earthy, spiritual brand of gospel rock is in ample evidence on stellar tracks like “Loving Cup,” “Let It Loose,” and especially the sublime “Shine A Light,” while the melodic, countrified “Torn and Frayed” is similarly superb yet criminally underrated. Having mentioned what I consider to be the album’s best songs, I must also duly note that Exile On Main Street is a “repeat listens” sort of album that really must be listened to as a whole in order to be fully appreciated.

Even then it seems that not everyone “gets” this album, and maybe there’s some validity to those among you who would criticize the lo-fi sound while also claiming that the album overextends itself at eighteen songs. But aside from maybe ditching one or two tracks I wouldn’t change a damn thing about it, as this gloriously unkempt collection is as richly authentic and representative of the band’s greatness as any of their previous albums, even if it doesn’t quite match up to the last three on a song-for-song basis (as an aside, I’ll note that most of this album is obscure radio-wise, which further endears it to me).

Alas, this would be the last time that the band would ever work at such a consistently high level again.

April 12, 2013 - Posted by | The Rolling Stones Exile On Main Street |

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