There are songs that are better, there are songs that are worse, there are songs that’ll become your favorites and others you’ll probably lift the needle for when their time is due. But in the end, Exile on Main Street spends its four sides shading the same song in as many variations as there are Rolling Stone readymades to fill them, and if on the one hand they prove the group’s eternal constancy and appeal, it’s on the other that you can leave the album and still feel vaguely unsatisfied, not quite brought to the peaks that this band of bands has always held out as a special prize in the past.
The Stones have never set themselves in the forefront of any musical revolution, instead preferring to take what’s already been laid down and then gear it to its highest most slashing level. Along this road they’ve displayed a succession of sneeringly believable poses, in a tradition so grand that in lesser hands they could have become predictable, coupled with an acute sense of social perception and the kind of dynamism that often made everything else seem beside the point.
Through a spectral community alchemy, we’ve chosen the Stones to bring our darkness into light, in each case via a construct that fits the time and prevailing mood perfectly. And, as a result, they alone have become the last of the great hopes. If you can’t bleed on the Stones, who can you bleed on?
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In that light, Exile on Main Street is not just another album, a two-month binge for the rack-jobbers and then onto whoever’s up next. Backed by an impending tour and a monumental picture-book, its mere presence in record stores makes a statement. And as a result, the group has been given a responsibility to their audience which can’t be dropped by the wayside, nor should be, given the two-way street on which music always has to function. Performers should not let their public make career decisions for them, but the best artisans of any era have worked closely within their audience’s expectations, either totally transcending them (the Beatles in their up-to-and-including Sgt. Pepper period) or manipulating them (Dylan, continually).
The Stones have prospered by making the classic assertion whenever it was demanded of them. Coming out of Satanic Majesties Request, the unholy trio of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Street Fighting Man” and “Sympathy for the Devil” were the blockbusters that brought them back in the running. After, through “Midnight Rambler,” “Honky Tonk Women,” “Brown Sugar,” “Bitch” and those jagged-edge opening bars of “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” they’ve never failed to make that affirmation of their superiority when it was most needed, of the fact that others may come and go but the Rolling Stones will always be.
This continual topping of one’s self can only go on for so long, after which one must sit back and sustain what has already been built. And with Exile on Main Street, the Stones have chosen to sustain for the moment, stabilizing their pasts and presenting few directions for their future. The fact that they do it so well is testament to one of the finest bands in the world. The fact that they take a minimum of chances, even given the room of their first double album set, tends to dull that finish a bit.
Exile on Main Street is the Rolling Stones at their most dense and impenetrable. In the tradition of Phil Spector, they’ve constructed a wash of sound in which to frame their songs, yet where Spector always aimed to create an impression of space and airiness, the Stones group everything together in one solid mass, providing a tangled jungle through which you have to move toward the meat of the material. Only occasionally does an instrument or voice break through to the surface, and even then it seems subordinate to the ongoing mix, and without the impact that a break in the sound should logically have.
One consequence of this style is that most of the hard-core action on the record revolves around Charlie Watts’ snare drum. The sound gives him room not only to set the pace rhythmically but to also provide the bulk of the drive and magnetism. Another is that because Jagger’s voice has been dropped to the level of just another instrument, burying him even more than usual, he has been freed from any restrictions the lyrics might have once imposed. The ulterior motives of mumbling aside, with much of the record completely unintelligible — though the words I could make out generally whetted my appetite to hear more — he’s been left with something akin to pure singing, utilizing only his uncanny sense of style to carry him home from there. His performances here are among the finest he’s graced us with in a long time, a virtual drama which amply proves to me that there’s no other vocalist who can touch him, note for garbled note.
As for Keith, Bill and Mick T., their presence comes off as subdued, never overly apparent until you put your head between the speakers. In the case of the last two, this is perfectly understandable. Wyman has never been a front man, and his bass has never been recorded with an eye to clarity. He’s the bottom, and he fulfills his support role with a grace that is unfailingly admirable. Mick Taylor falls about the same, chosen to take Brian’s place as much because he could be counted on to stay in the background as for his perfect counterpoint guitar skills. With Keith, however, except for a couple of spectacular chording exhibitions and some lethal openings, his instrumental wizardry is practically nowhere to be seen, unless you happen to look particularly hard behind Nicky Hopkins’ piano or the dual horns of Price/Keys. It hurts the album, as the bone earring has often provided the marker on which the Stones rise or fall.
Happily, though, Exile on Main Street has the Rolling Stones sounding like a full-fledged five-into-one band. Much of the self-consciousness that marred Sticky Fingers has apparently vanished, as well as that album’s tendency to touch every marker on the Hot 100. It’s been replaced by a tight focus on basic components of the Stones’ sound as we’ve always known it, knock-down rock and roll stemming from blues, backed with a pervading feeling of blackness that the Stones have seldom failed to handle well.
The album begins with “Rocks Off,” a proto-typical Stones’ opener whose impact is greatest in its first 15 seconds. Kicked off by one of Richards’ patented guitar scratchings, a Jagger aside and Charlie’s sharp crack, it moves into the kind of song the Stones have built a reputation on, great choruses and well-judged horn bursts, painlessly running you through the motions until you’re out of the track and into the album. But if that’s one of its assets, it also stands for one of its deficiencies — there’s nothing distinctive about the tune. Stones’ openers of the past have generally served to set the mood for the mayhem to follow; this one tells you that we’re in for nothing new.
“Rip This Joint” is a stunner, getting down to the business at hand with the kind of music the Rolling Stones were born to play. It starts at a pace that yanks you into its locomotion full tilt, and never lets up from there; the sax solo is the purest of rock and roll. Slim Harpo’s “Shake Your Hips” mounts up as another plus, with a mild boogie tempo and a fine mannered vocal from Jagger. The guitars are the focal point here, and they work with each other like a pair of Corsican twins. “Casino Boogie” sounds at times as if it were a Seventies remake from the chord progression of “Spider and the Fly,” and for what it’s worth, I suppose I’d rather listen to “jump right ahead in my web” any day.
But it’s left to “Tumbling Dice” to not just place a cherry on the first side, but to also provide one of the album’s only real moves towards a classic. As the guitar figure slowly falls into Charlie’s inevitable smack, the song builds to the kind of majesty the Stones at their best have always provided. Nothing is out of place here, Keith’s simple guitar figure providing the nicest of bridges, the chorus touching the upper levels of heaven and spurring on Jagger, set up by an arrangement that is both unique and imaginative. It’s definitely the cut that deserved the single, and the fact that it’s not likely to touch Number One shows we’ve perhaps come a little further than we originally intended.
Side Two is the only side on Exile without a barrelhouse rocker, and drags as a result. I wish for once the Stones could do a country song in the way they’ve apparently always wanted, without feeling the need to hoke it up in some fashion. “Sweet Virginia” is a perfectly friendly lazy shuffle that gets hung on an overemphasized “shit” in the chorus. “Torn and Frayed” has trouble getting started, but as it inexorably rolls to its coda the Stones find their flow and relax back, allowing the tune to lovingly expand. “Sweet Black Angel,” with its vaguely West Indian rhythm and Jagger playing Desmond Dekker, comes off as a pleasant experiment that works, while “Loving Cup” is curiously faceless, though it must be admitted the group works enough out-of-the-ordinary breaks and bridges to give it at least a fighting chance; the semi-soul fade on the end is rhythmically satisfying but basically undeveloped, adding to the cut’s lack of impression.
The third side is perhaps the best organized of any on Exile. Beginning with the closest thing to a pop number Mick and Keith have written on the album, “Happy” lives up to its title from start to finish. It’s a natural-born single, and its position as a side opener seems to suggest the group thinks so too. “Turd on the Run,” even belying its gimmicky title, is a superb little hustler; if Keith can be said to have a showpiece on this album, this is it. Taking off from a jangly “Maybellene” rhythm guitar, he misses not a flick of the wrist, sitting behind the force of the instrumental and shoveling it along. “Ventilator Blues” is all Mick, spreading the guts of his voice all over the microphone, providing an entrance into the gumbo ya-ya of “I Just Want to See His Face,” Jagger and the chorus sinuously wavering around a grand collection of jungle drums. “Let It Loose” closes out the side, and as befits the album’s second claim to classic, is one beautiful song, both lyrically and melodically. Like on “Tumbling Dice,” everything seems to work as a body here, the gospel chorus providing tension, the leslie’d guitar rounding the mysterious nature of the track, a great performance from Mick and just the right touch of backing instruments. Whoever that voice belongs to hanging off the fade in the end, I’d like to kiss her right now: she’s that lovely.
Coming off “Let It Loose,” you might expect Side Four to be the one to really put the album on the target. Not so. With the exception of an energy-ridden “All Down The Line” and about half of “Shine a Light,” Exile starts a slide downward which happens so rapidly that you might be left a little dazed as to what exactly happened. “Stop Breaking Down” is such an overdone blues cliché that I’m surprised it wasn’t placed on Jamming With Edward. “Shine a Light” starts with perhaps the best potential of any song on the album, a slow, moody piece with Mick singing in a way calculated to send chills up your spine. Then, out of nowhere, the band segues into the kind of shlock gospel song that Tommy James has already done better. Then they move you back into the slow piece. Then back into shlock gospel again. It’s enough to drive you crazy.
After four sides you begin to want some conclusion to the matters at hand, to let you off the hook so you can start all over fresh. “Soul Survivor,” though a pretty decent and upright song in itself, can’t provide the kind of kicker that is needed at this point. It’s typicality, within the oeuvre of the Rolling Stones, means it could’ve been placed anywhere, and with “Let It Loose” just begging to seal the bottle, there’s no reason why it should be the last thing left you by the album.
Still, talking about the pieces of Exile on Main Street is somewhat off the mark here, since individually the cuts seem to stand quite well. Only when they’re taken together, as a lump sum of four sides, is their impact blunted. This would be all right if we were talking about any other group but the Stones. Yet when you’ve been given the best, it becomes hard to accept anything less, and if there are few moments that can be faulted on this album, it also must be said that the magic high spots don’t come as rapidly.
Exile on Main Street appears to take up where Sticky Fingers left off, with the Stones attempting to deal with their problems and once again slightly missing the mark. They’ve progressed to the other side of the extreme, wiping out one set of solutions only to be confronted with another. With few exceptions, this has meant that they’ve stuck close to home, doing the sort of things that come naturally, not stepping out of the realm in which they feel most comfortable. Undeniably it makes for some fine music, and it surely is a good sign to see them recording so prolifically again; but I still think that the great Stones album of their mature period is yet to come. Hopefully, Exile on Main Street will give them the solid footing they need to open up, and with a little horizon-expanding (perhaps honed by two months on the road), they might even deliver it to us the next time around.