Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Album Review: The Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main Street," Remastered

In the nearly forty years since its release, the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street has consumed so much ink that it merits an entry in the music critic's thesaurus:

Exile n. sweaty, coked-up, grimy, sprawling, messy, classic

I wouldn't dream of quibbling with the last, but the release this past week of the remastered version of Exile did lead me to reevaluate the penultimate claim.

The pantheon of "messy albums" is dotted with a few classics and probably many, many more stinkers that have been forgotten. For every London Calling, there are probably a hundred more overlong, pretentious bores. But regardless of their quality, what unites these "messy albums" is a fearless spirit of experimentation and an often schizophrenic display of sounds and sensibilities.

Guided by Voices' Bee Thousand is perhaps the messiest record ever put to tape. Over the course of twenty tracks, Bee runs hints of power pop, noise rock, and archetypal nineties indie rock through the crappiest-sounding boombox you could conceive of. That they do it in under forty minutes makes the whole thing even more head-spinning. I like to think of Bee as the suitcase of a particularly interesting traveler: you'll certainly find some brilliant and revealing stuff inside ("Tractor Rape Chain", "The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory"), but you're also bound to find a bunch of dirty laundry ("Kicker of Elves").

Exile on Main Street is long and full of treasures, but it doesn't evince this same dynamic. The Stones made a career out of aural diversity, hopping drunkenly from genre to genre on an intra-album basis. Sticky Fingers slings blues ("You Gotta Move"), country rock ("Wild Horses"), and cocks-out rock 'n roll ("Brown Sugar") in equal measure. To these ears, the seventy minute long Exile certainly sounds like more, but it doesn't sound different, at least as a record.

But the songs on Exile are, indeed, messy as fuck. The story of Exile's recording has been told and retold, but its sexy, fever-dream glory never really gets old: the Stones, fleeing their home country's absurd tax system, escape to a villa rented by guitarist/human rutabaga Keith Richards. Located in the Côte d'Azur region of Southern France, Nellcôte would be the Stones' home as they banged out some of the nastiest, grimiest, shit-kicking-est rock 'n roll ever heard by a mainstream audience.

Calling the proceedings "unorthodox" is something of an understatement. The band parked their rented recording truck in the driveway and decided to set up shop in the basement. Richards described the place as "very, very murky - and dusty," and certainly not the ideal recording atmosphere. The quivering, inescapable heat didn't make things any easier; musicians were forced to tune and re-tune constantly as the French summer wreaked havoc on their instruments. Richards was probably exaggerating when he said "it kind of looked like Hitler's bunker," but not by much. Despite the best efforts of engineer Andy Johns and producer Jimmy Miller, the sound was nasty and indistinct.

But history has smiled upon Exile, to be sure. From the sweet heartbreak of "Tumbling Dice" to the righteous praise music of "Shine a Light" to the downright Satanic "Ventilator Blues," every inch of Exile is magnificent. Somehow, the clusterfuck at Nellcôte made the record sound that much more legit. After all, the blues and soul artists the Stones so revered didn't get to record their great stuff in state-of-the-art British studios.The vocals may be muffled, the guitar may cut out with alarming regularity, and the fidelity may be outright crap, but the record's a grungy wonder. If you've never spent some serious time with Exile, take this as an opportunity to rediscover one of the greatest pieces of shit ever put to tape. The bonus tracks ain't half bad, either.