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.
It’s been said this is The Rolling Stones’ White Album; they had already created a handful of masterful statements, and they figured that it was time to pull together a sloppily assembled double album of more scattershot quality. That wasn’t a bad idea for The Beatles, and that wasn’t a bad idea for The Stones. In fact, this gave them a valued opportunity to return to their roots, since they started out as a sloppy and imperfect R&B band!
But of course Exile on Main St. is a mile away from earliest incarnation; these guys are cockier than ever. Well, they had a lot to feel cocky about; they were the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band on the planet, and they bloody well knew it!
On the other hand, I really miss the organized precision of their previous albums. The production also suffers a lot, since many of these songs are mixed rather poorly. At times, I can hardly hear Mick Jagger’s vocal lyrics! … But honestly, he’s singing so cockily that I probably wouldn’t be able to make them out anyhow! The main reason I think this album pales is the songwriting. As a whole, these songs just don’t strike me as an endless string of classics as I’ve gotten in their other albums.
That’s an unfortunate consequence of creating a White Album, I suppose. But anyway, since this is indeed a Rolling Stones album from 1968-1972, then you know it’s got to be great. So, let us concentrate on the “greatness” aspect of this album.
If “Tumbling Dice” and “Ventilator Blues” aren’t among The Stones’ finest songs ever, then I’ll be hornswaggled. (I don’t even know what “hornswaggling” entails, so you know I’ve got to be serious when I say that.) They are both terrific slower blues rockers with catchy riffs, bold instrumentals and good vocal melodies! Perhaps they’re not as splendid as certain blues songs on their previous albums, but they’re very, very close. They not only turn in some great blues songs, but they give country-western music a few more gems that it deserves. “Sweet Virginia” is just as engaging and pretty as its song title cracks it up to be, and “Torn and Frayed” isn’t so much an original masterpiece as it is simply enjoyable!
“Rocks Off” is a rollicking and catchy riff-rocker and a great way to get the album off with a bang. It’s very rough and wild sounding to begin with, and the horn section they bring in for the final half makes it even more wild! In fact, the horn or a saxophone makes frequent appearance throughout this album, and they only do good things. “Rip this Joint,” the second track, is more old-timey, giving us an indication right away that The Stones wanted to return to their deep roots. You’ve got to get a load of Jagger’s extremely excitable vocal performance on that one… It sounds like he should be splashed with cold water!… The Jerry-Lee-Lewis styled piano playing around also helps make the song exciting… and that piano is a major highlight through many of these other songs.
Another major highlight is “Stop Breaking Down” with its mean sounding blues riff, and the anthemic gospel number “Shine a Light” is a brilliantly engaging piece with some beautiful back-up singers. Although the back-up singers aren’t always good news; I thought they sounded pretty out-of-whack throughout the ballad “Let it Loose.”
I liked that ballad, overall, but it’s absolutely nothing compared to their previous ballads like “Wild Horses.” I’m not even complaining about the production; it just doesn’t have the melody, unfortunately.
Most of the rockers in Exile are fun to listen to, but “Casino Boogie” is one that just doesn’t catch fire. Likewise, “Loving Cup” has a good beat you can dance to, but it’s missing that special ‘something’ that The Stones had seemed to effortlessly be able to extract out of their previous songs. “Sweet Black Angel” is an OK ballad, but it’s a bit on the dull side, which is something that I don’t remember thinking about any Rolling Stones song since Their Satanic Majesties Request.
When it’s all said and done, though, there’s only one track on here that I’d call a misfire, and that’s “I Just Want to See His Face,” consisting only of a bizarre, subdued groove. The texture is interesting, I suppose, but it’s not engaging in the slightest. It’s a shame they wasted a three-minute track on something like that instead of something else that woulda blown me away!
I don’t think anyone can deny that Exile on Main St. is a huge rock ‘n’ roll classic, and I really love listening to about 3/4ths of it. Even though I already said that I preferred their more meticulous arrangements, I’ll admit that it’s novel to hear The Rolling Stones throwing everything aside and simply rocking out like a rock ‘n’ roll band ought to. They succeed wildly here for the most part, but I just wish that their songwriting was more up-to-par.