Sunday, February 13, 2011

Top 25 Albums #15. Exile on Main St. - The Rolling Stones

The creation of Exile on Main St. is legendary. On the run from British drug police and taxmen, the Rolling Stones holed up in a mansion that Keith Richards had been renting in the south of France and, in a haze of heroin, sex, and basement murk, produced their rough-edged masterpiece. There's really no need for me take pains in retelling this story, as it's already been thoroughly canonized. The atmosphere in which the album was recorded is important, though. Listening to Exile, one can see the blissed-out bodies slumped in the corner, smell the ash, booze, and sweat, taste the heavy basement air.

The rollicking affair wastes no time getting its "Rocks Off"; within seconds, the album's mission statement is articulated: have fun, no matter the cost. Forever the underrated lyricist, Mick Jagger combines sleaze with intelligence to produce such keepers as "The sunshine bores the daylights out of me." Mixed closer to the middle than the foreground, Jagger's scorched vocals are buried under the assault of Keith's riffing and Charlie Watts' swing. Add in boogie piano, horns, and saxophone, and you've got some of the purest, most vital rock-n-roll ever made.

The true Rolling Stones fan loves the filler as much as the hits, and where Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed had quality filler next to awesome hits, Exile--embracing the double-LP format--turns filler into art. There's no "Gimme Shelter" or "Sympathy for the Devil" here. Exile on Main St. is like a deep, dank mine loaded (loded?) with diamonds packed into its earthy walls. Look at the track list and you may say, "What's the big deal?', but listen to it and you'll know. The exotic percussion that lays down "Shake Your Hips"'s hiccuping rhythm, the aching country of "Sweet Virginia" (many people seem to forget what expert country players these Brits were) and its grin-inducing refrain of "Got to scrape that shit right off your shoe", the endearingly imperfect harmonies on "Torn and Frayed", the marimbas heard in "Sweet Black Angel"'s fade out (possibly my favorite moment on the album). After enough listens, nearly every minute of Exile is worthy of adoration.

And if you're looking for standouts, you've got "Tumbling Dice" and "Shine a Light". The former, with its seconds-long, melancholic guitar intro, bubbly bass, and gorgeous chorus, is one of the best songs in the band's repertoire. The latter trickles in with a few seconds of pillowy U2-like guitar before hammering down the resonant piano chords that properly introduce this soulful, gospel-tinged ballad; the album's true finale, nevermind that "Soul Survivor" is technically the last song.

Almost as remarkable as the songs themselves is their production. Loathed by Jagger and loved by Richards, Exile's sound is murky, muddy, and "poorly" mixed. Vocals find themselves not quite front-and-center, but rather in the middle, contending with the instrumental racket that's usually behind them. This serves to make Jagger's clever lyrics even harder to make out than usual, which is unfortunate, but I still wouldn't change a thing. The album's production contributes to its coherently grungy aesthetic and makes its untamed roots-rock feel even more authentic and alive.

Whatever you think of the Rolling Stones, you can't say that they don't love their blues, country, and R&B. Exile on Main St., rather than blazing new trails, chooses to amalgamate and perfect the music that came before it, and it succeeds wildly. All rock & roll musicians, professional or aspiring, should listen again to this manifesto and be reminded of the music's liberating lowbrow beauty.

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