Sigh. I have such a hard time getting with the program.
Everybody thinks Dark Side of the Moon is Pink Floyd’s masterwork. I think it’s a bit boring, and not half as interesting as Wish You Were Here or Animals. Everybody thinks Tommy was the greatest thing The Who ever did. “Yawn,” say I, “I’ll take Who’s Next any time.” Everybody thinks Arthur is The Kinks’ masterpiece; I recently caught all kinds of hell from Kinks fans for disputing that conclusion. Everybody thinks Abbey Road was a fitting conclusion to a great run by the greatest band of all time. I think it’s a stinker that shows only that The Beatles hung on about two years too long.
So here I am facing the album that Everybody says is the best thing The Stones ever did and wondering why I’m pretty much alone in thinking that Exile on Main Street is a bloated, busy, overcrowded mass of uninspired music.
Well, at least I can take solace in the fact that Mick Jagger said it wasn’t one of his favorite albums, either. I’ve always thought Mick Jagger was a man of exquisite taste.
My problems with Exile on Main Street apply to just about every track and include:
Dreadful Arrangements: There’s simply too much stuff and too many musicians crammed into nearly every single song. It sounds like The Stones decided to throw everything and everyone who happened to stop by into the mix instead of actually thinking about the sounds and moods they wanted to create. If you look at the arc between Beggars Banquet and Exile on Main Street, we move gradually from elegant simplicity to more and more complexity in the form of horns, keyboards, choirs and backup singers. They managed the added complexity exceptionally well on Sticky Fingers, but here they threw all discipline to the wind. The greatest crime on Exile is the horribly overdone version of Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down,” a shocking turnabout after their exquisitely sensitive version of “Love in Vain” on Let It Bleed. And why did they have to include that saxophone on “Sweet Virginia” or those horns that bury everything else on “Rocks Off?” There’s scarcely a song on Exile that doesn’t cause me to wince at some point and shout, “Why the fuck did you have to add that to the mix?” The biggest problem is that all this stuff masks the rhythm and the groove, and while everyone paid attention to Mick and Keith, it was Bill and Charlie that made The Stones go.
Dreadful Mixing: In addition to the sheer quantity of sound, the mixing is simply awful. Mick’s vocals are so muddy and unintelligible at times that I wonder if they bothered to see if his mike was plugged in. Anything’s possible, since they were shipping heroin into Villefranche-sur-Mer like there was no tomorrow and the producer was a major consumer! When you do hear bass and drums, it’s either during the few moments when no one else is playing or because someone accidentally bumped the sliders on the mixer. I’ve listened to the original mix on vinyl from my father’s collection, the 1994 mix from my teenage CD collection and bought the 2010 mix especially for this review. They all suck.
Too Many People Who Are Not The Rolling Stones: There are at least sixteen other musicians, both instrumentalists and singers, on Exile on Main Street as opposed to five Stones. During the recording period, The Stones observed what we refer to today as “flexible schedules,” meaning they pretty much showed up when they felt like it or when their other commitments eased up enough to allow them to grace the recording studio with their presence. The effect of all this chaos is a loss of The Stones’ core sound and attitude. Exile sounds like a large group of people doing Stones covers or a hootenanny of hangers-on and professional druggies.
Witless Lyrics: I mean that literally. The Stones had consistently demonstrated a penetrating sense of humor over the years; the lyrics on Exile are uniformly devoid of wit. In fact, they’re pretty much devoid of anything. There aren’t even any memorable lines that leap out at you. The lyrics are pretty much rock cliché with occasional roads that lead nowhere and a few naughty words thrown in to titillate the mindless. “Moronic Party Album” pretty much sums up Exile on Main St.
When it comes down to it, out of eighteen tracks, I like a grand total of one: “Sweet Black Angel.” Percentage-wise, that would make it my least favorite Stones album, but there are enough faint hints of something decent beneath the muck to put it ahead of the completely unsalvageable Their Satanic Majesties Request. I think Exile is probably a decent party album, if played at that volume where you’re aware of the patterns but aren’t paying attention to the details. By way of decade-based comparison, I like Some Girls a bit better, even though I despise their pathetic cover of “Just My Imagination.” Since I don’t care at all for Goat’s Head Soup or Black and Blue, I guess Exile wins some kind of consolation prize.
We’ll let the cultured, sophisticated, incisive and extraordinarily perceptive Mr. Jagger have the last word, from the book According to the Rolling Stones:
Exile is not one of my favourite albums, although I think the record does have a particular feeling. I’m not too sure how great the songs are, but put together it’s a nice piece. However, when I listen to Exile it has some of the worst mixes I’ve ever heard. I’d love to remix the record, not just because of the vocals, but because generally I think it sounds lousy. At the time Jimmy Miller was not functioning properly. I had to finish the whole record myself, because otherwise there were just these drunks and junkies. Of course I’m ultimately responsible for it, but it’s really not good and there’s no concerted effort or intention.
Sticky Fingers is without a doubt my favorite album by The Rolling Stones, for unlike the delightfully eclectic Between the Buttons, this is a real Stones album. One of the great guitar riff collections of all time, it also features two timelessly beautiful ballads and a solid foundation combining R&B, blues, soul, country and fiery rock ‘n’ roll. I enjoy every single track on this album, something I can’t say about any of their other works. While it’s not absolute perfection (the drug references are a bit overdone), Sticky Fingers gives me everything I want from The Stones: great rhythms, kick-ass guitar, lust-drenched vocals sharpened with wit and bluesy, soulful intensity.
“Brown Sugar” gives us The Stones at full power, totally into the groove and having a great time with both the music and the message. The message of the song is beautifully clear: the desire to fuck trumps everything else in life, even the anti-miscegenation gospel of a “scarred old slaver.” The Stones have fun exposing that hypocrisy, and by extension, all sexual hypocrisy generated by our common puritanical heritage. The conflict between primal urges and social appearances, celebrated most vividly in the line “Drums beating, cold English blood runs hot,” echoes Conrad’s theme of the conflict between prudish, denial-ridden Victorian civilization and the pull of the “dark” primeval forces of the mysterious but compelling jungle. But all of these interpretations, including the added ambiguity of “brown sugar” as a drug reference, take a back seat to the sheer sexuality of the song, with its hot and heavy guitars, boozy saxophone and blatant celebration of licking pussy. I could have saved a lot of blog space by just writing “Fuck, yeah!” and let that stand as my commentary on “Brown Sugar.”
Thick guitars also open “Sway,” a classic Stones soul-rock number with great hooks, a wonderfully energetic performance from Mick Jagger and those perfectly simple Keith Richards harmonies that encourage even the tone-deaf to try to sing along. Mick Taylor’s fade-out solo is an added bonus, giving him the opportunity to make his mark right at the outset of his first appearance as a full-time member of the band.
When I first seriously listened to the album in my teenage years, I was already in love with Sticky Fingers after the first two songs, but “Wild Horses” transformed love into an intense passion. Probably the most beautiful song Jagger and Richards ever wrote, its special combination of sweetness, soulfulness and vulnerability hits me in the gut every time I hear it. The arrangement is both disciplined but extraordinarily sensitive to the feel of the song, creating a gorgeous flow that absorbs the listener from beginning to end. The version on Stripped is even better, and the film of their studio performance on the Stripped DVD is an absolute knockout.
Another thing I love about Sticky Fingers is that it is absolutely fucking relentless. “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” gives us over seven glorious minutes of The Stones at their rocking, sexy best. After the riff-driven opening passage, the song shifts into an extended jam recorded by accident that’s the best extended instrumental piece The Stones ever did. Bobby Keys blows the shit out of that sax, and when Mick Taylor takes over towards the end, he seals the deal with a seriously hot piece of fingering.
Whew! I love that phrase, “seriously hot piece of fingering.” Sometimes I even surprise myself!
The Stones then continue to keep building credits towards their status as one of the great cover bands ever with their version of the gospel standard, “You Gotta Move.” Performed in Delta blues style, The Stones treat the song with tender respect, modernizing it only slightly with the electric slide solo in the middle. Then it’s get-up-and-shake-it time with “Bitch,” a song that keeps the foot firmly pressed on the gas pedal from start to finish. I love displays of male vulnerability, and the lyrics contain some of my favorite lines on Sticky Fingers:
Sometimes I’m sexy, move like a stud
Kicking the stall all night
Sometimes I’m so shy, got to be worked on
Don’t have no bark or bite
Yeah when you call my name
I salivate like a Pavlov dog
Yeah when you lay me out
My heart starts beating like a big bass drum
That’s what I’m talkin’ about!
Mick gets into Otis Redding mode with the original, “I Got the Blues,” featuring period-perfect horn backup and a great organ solo from the ubiquitous Billy Preston. At this stage, The Stones still approached arrangement with a sense of discipline and taste, something that would continually elude them during the recording of Exile on Main Street, where they’d go for a more “let’s pile it on” approach. This sense of restraint is also apparent in “Sister Morphine,” giving their signature piece on drug addiction a feel that combines both a sense of bleakness and the nervous tension of an addict. “Dead Flowers” also deals with drugs, but in the sentimental-tragic mode of a classic country tune, a choice that makes the song much lighter than “Sister Morphine.”
Sticky Fingers ends with one of the most neglected songs in The Stones’ catalogue, “Moonlight Mile.” The first verse has something of a Japanese flavor, opening the doors to a series of clever mood shifts in one of The Stones’ most inventive arrangements. Charlie Watts does a remarkable job handling the various ebbs and flows with soft cymbal crashes and oscillations between pounding toms and steady snare and high hat. The use of strings here is also particularly effective, combining smooth supporting glides with occasional staccato bursts. “Moonlight Mile” continues the theme of the loneliness of the long-haul traveler that previously found its best expression in “Goin’ Home” on Aftermath. That earlier song’s expression of separation primarily dealt with unquenchable sexual craving; “Moonlight Mile” echoes that theme but expresses more clearly the sense of isolation one can experience even when surrounded by human beings:
The sound of strangers sending nothing to my mind
Just another mad, mad day on the road
I am just living to be lying by your side
But I’m just about a moonlight mile on down the road.
Sticky Fingers passes the Alt Rock Chick’s infallible test for a great album: I hate it when it ends. This is The Stones at their peak, confident, infused with energy, driving it home like a great fuck and hitting all the sweet spots on the way.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, someone is waiting for me in the bedroom, hoping to demonstrate some seriously hot fingering skills for my pleasure. Ciao!