Thursday, October 17, 2013

CD Odyssey Disc 559: The Rolling Stones

I went to a concert on Sunday night and was reminded again how important a good sound man is.  My friend Josh and I went to see “Deep Dark Woods” a band I’ve really taken to this year (I even bang away at a couple of their songs on the guitar).  I had high hopes.

Sadly, the sound quality at the Upstairs Lounge (nee Harpo’s) was so bad it was like listening to Charlie Brown’s teacher give a concert.  I’ve seen a lot of great shows at that location, so I know the room can handle it, and it was deeply disappointing to see it fail so badly.

I still love Deep Dark Woods, but it is a lesson that you can have the greatest songs and the tightest band in history, but it doesn’t mean a thing if the production is so bad no one can hear them.

Disc 559 is…. Exile on Main Street
Artist: Rolling Stones

Year of Release: 1972

What’s up with the Cover?  Beats me.  My best guess without looking it up is these are a bunch of photos from early circus acts, mostly from the freakshow.  I know I don’t like it, though.  It is too busy and I expect hard to see even if you had it on the original vinyl.  Yet another disappointing Rolling Stones cover.

How I Came To Know It:  A few years ago I overcame my long-seated disinterest in the Rolling Stones and realized that I liked a lot of their stuff from the late sixties and early seventies.  “Exile on Main Street” fit that time frame and came highly recommended, so I took a chance on it.

How It Stacks Up:  I have six of the Rolling Stones’ studio albums.  Of the six, I would put it third, bumping “Beggar’s Banquet” (reviewed back at Disc 381) out of that spot.  Depending on what kind of music I’m in the mood for, I might even bump it above “Some Girls” for second spot.

Rating:  4 stars

The Rolling Stones have tried a bit of everything in their career.  They’ve delved into country, disco and on “Their Satanic Majesties Request” they went completely psychedelic.  “Exile on Main St.” is the band getting back to their blues-rock roots in glorious, double album fashion.

As a young band, the Stones were hugely influential in popularizing American blues music in the United Kingdom, and “Exile on Main St.” returns to that material with conviction.  Ever the master rhythm guitarist, Keith Richards lays down gorgeous groove after gorgeous groove, and Mick lets his dirty voice do what it does best, and get filthy all over your ears.  The band beautifully works in horn sections, piano and groovy harmonies that show these guys were likely as inspired by James Brown as they were by Robert Johnson.

A lot of the songs sound like blues standards, but are actually Rolling Stones originals, particularly “Casino Boogie,” and “Ventilator Blues” which sound like they are right off an old blues ’78.  Admittedly, these aren’t my favourites, and my favourite song on the album in the traditional blues style is an actual blues original; Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down.”

I have four versions of “Stop Breaking Down” and the Rolling Stones do it best.  Considering the other three are by Lucinda Williams, The White Stripes and the original, I think that is an impressive feat.  The way the band makes the rhythm on the song sound so twisted and sloppy and yet keeps everything so tight in the mix is like watching an experienced drunk walking home.  He may sway back and forth across the street – even lurch in places – but he never falls over, and every shuffle of his feet is like a poem being written on the pavement in perfect time.

There are too many songs on “Exile on Main St.” which is a common malaise with double albums.  I could probably cut it back to 14 tracks from its original 18, and maybe even down to 12.  Having said that, the classics stand out and hold the album up.  “Tumbling Dice” is one of the greatest Rolling Stones songs ever written, as it shakes and sways its way through whatever the hell Jagger is singing about.  I think he’s mad at women in the song.  Or desperately lusting after them.  Or both:

“'Cause all you women is low down gamblers,
Cheatin' like I don't know how,
But baby, baby, there's fever in the funk house now.
This low down bitchin' got my poor feet a itchin',
Don't you know you know the deuce is still wild.”

Yeah – likely both.

As “Tumbling Dice” demonstrates, there is an edge to “Exile on Main St.” even sharper than usual for a Stones album.  It was like the band hung it all out there in the studio, and weren’t afraid to get a little shit on their shoes, musically speaking, if it helped ground their sound in the blues.  It works.

Production-wise, the band always seems to know when to default to a guitar riff and a Jagger growl like on “Rocks Off” and when to have a bit of high harmony and piano, like on “Loving Cup.”  “Exile…” is an album that understands itself well and like anything that understands itself, the decisions it makes become effortless and eerily accurate.

There is a reason albums are considered classic, and “Exile on Main St.” certainly qualifies.  It probably has three sides worth of good music and four sides to fill, but that’s not too terrible a crime.

My particular version of the album is a special release, with a second album of bonus material.  This consists of ten other tracks from the same period (and only two alternate takes of songs on the original record).  As bonus material goes, it is pretty interesting stuff – bringing something new to the experience and also being good songs in their own right, but since the original album is a bit large to begin with, it made grokking everything in its fullness a bit more of a challenge.

Still, it was a challenge I enjoyed, and if I took a full week to get through this record and all the bonus material properly, it was an enjoyable week.  This is one disc I wouldn’t judge by its cover.

Best tracks:   Rocks Off, Tumbling Dice, Sweet Black Angel, Loving Cup, Happy, All Down the Line, Stop Breaking Down, Shine a Light

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