The Rolling Stones "Exile on Main Street Deluxe Edition": First listen
A few weeks back, the clichéd children on American Idol took on Stones tracks. The biggest takeaway for anyone watching should have been just what an amazing, forceful and soulful singer Mick Jagger is. But, come on, you know this. It's the freakin' Rolling Stones. Singing the praises of the greatest rock & roll band of all time seems rather redundant, especially when it comes to the canonical and revered Exile on Main Street. Yes, I'm a weirdo who reaches for other Stones records first—Aftermath, Sticky Fingers and, yeah, even the underrated It's Only Rock & Roll, Black & Blue or Emotional Rescue. Which is not to say Exile is worse. I just tend to stick up for the less ubiquitous underdogs in the catalog.
So it's exciting to have the chance to listen to a remastered Exile with fresh ears, even if the record has been modernized with bright 21st-century punch (or "loudness"). Listening to the buffed-up "Shake Your Hips" side-to-side with the original (or even the prior CD remasters) seemingly doubles the volume, which will undoubtedly lead to some kvetching about the loss of the record's ramshackle charm. I have to say I'd agree. On first impression, it comes off more like the 1999 Yellow Submarine Songtrack than the mind-blowing 2009 Beatles remasters. The sound is clean and beautiful, and it's hard to be critical of the job done, but it's just a matter of preference, kind of like some people prefer hearing Beggars Banquet at the improper slow speed offered for decades before a 2002 remaster.
But, obviously, the huge draw with this reissue is the "discovered" "old" material. I use the quotes because Mick has admitted in recent interviews that these new tunes feature new percussion, new vocals and new guitar—in unspecified quantities. Without a doubt, these new songs lack the juice and je ne sais quoi the oozes from the original jamming. (Though, the mythology of those sessions is overblown.) But the songs are a win-win. Look at it this way: If Mick did blow the dust off a forgotten box of tapes, well, awesome. And if these are in fact new studio recordings doctored up to pass as 1970s material, then at least it's proof the band still has it—and has one more great album in it. If they would only stop working with Don-fucking-Was.
Here's a track-by-track guide to the new stuff:
"Pass the Wine (Sophia Loren)"
"Glad to be alive and kickin'," Mick sings, giving the first clue he's delivering the lines as a soon-to-be septuagenarian. Though the following bit, "Glad to have a pot to piss in," seems somewhat ridiculous coming from a billionaire (or whatever). With woodblocks and rubber-band bass, this comes off like a War groove, or the Stones' take on "Oye Como Va." Just for the lesser traveled Latin waters of Stones, this stands out as a highlight.
"I'm Not Signifying"
Saloon piano rambles for a bit before Mick sidles up to the bar in his country twang. (This vocal sounds more discovered than recently recorded, but who knows.) Yep, just a solid blues number with bursts of slide guitar and wailing harmonicas. Still, it blows away what you hear in Kingston Mines. Mick says, "I ain't signifying," which would have been a better title and more in line with the snottier, younger Jagger. The sudden blast of New Orleans horns in the coda make this a last-minute winner.
"Dancing in the Light"
A casual blues shuffle with splashier percussion. Charlie gets a little loose on the cymbals as Mick breathlessly spits and rants about "basking in the spotlight" and "riding in a limo." So far, the spotlight is indeed on Mick, which is not surprising considering his lead role in putting this together. But the guy is old form here. It's the case where I hope this was put to tape in some Hawaiian studio in 2009.
"So Divine (Alladin Story)"
Ugh, that title. But, finally, Keith gets to show off a nifty new riff, even if it echos a half-speed "Paint It Black" rather audaciously. Some snake-charming saxophone wafts in and out, justifying the inane title, and goddam if it didn't bring to mind Wreckx-N-Effect's "Rumpshaker." Mick purrs, "You say your love is like the potion of the night." Likely to be another cherry-picked highlight, just for not being straight-up bluesy.
"Following the River"
Ah, the ballad. Sit, down, baby, and let Mick break it to you gently: "There's something I should tell you… I like the way your comb's tucked in your hair." But it's all breakup from there on, with plaintive piano, acoustic guitars and gentle tambourine taps. Backing "Ooooh" harmonies and judicious use of gospel singers add some color. Then come the violins. Dude, Phil Spector is jail. Did the world need another crime like his slathering of strings over Let It Be?
"Plundered My Soul"
Another sure bet to be a new vocal track, especially the gospel backups. A typical, bitter midtempo Stones track with horns putting some meat on the bones, alongside rambling piano and Jagger spittle flyin' free. "I thought you wanted my money to plunder my soul!" he rasps.
"Good Time Women"
Now this is more like it—a true dusty, though bootlegged before. This boogie-woogie precursor to "Tumbling Dice" was cut around Sticky Fingers, and has the welcome hiss (and crying Mick Taylor guitar) to prove it. Frankly, I kind of prefer this to the finished version, for the lack of big, belting soul singers. Hearing this after the prior cuts only underlines their dubious claim to being "rarities." This just has a utterly different feel.
The deluxe edition of Exile on Main Street is released on May 18.