Thursday, May 27, 2010

Lifting the Veil: The Rolling Stones’ Remastered Exile on Main St

Recorded in the basement of a mansion in the south of France during the summer of 1972, this double-album was The Rolling Stones’ “blues” record from start to finish. Save for the contractual hit singles, such as “Happy” and “Tumbling’ Dice,” this album freed up guitarist Mick Taylor to play his best licks as a contributing member of the band and not just the sub for Brian Jones (best heard on their cover of Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down”).

Considering the risk of re-mastering, this version of Exile, produced behind a veil of murk and mirth, the veil has finally been lifted revealing a remarkable mix of excellent arrangements. On “Tumbling Dice”, one of the stock favourites in The Rolling Stones’ songbook, has been cleaned up to show off the great background vocals and sweet guitar licks in between. The under-recognized “Sweet Black Angel” shows off its true colours with subtle hints of harmonica and xylophone once buried in the mix, now brought out of the darkness. And I suppose the mystery and darkness of Exile will piss off a lot of fans of the original mix. This was an album you played in the dark and experienced while passing a reefer and bottle of Jack Daniels.

The remastered version is a classy affair: single-malt scotch in the late summer’s evening. The re-mastering though falls short on “Happy” because this was a song best heard in the mud. Cleaned up, you can hear the double-tracked guitars and a funkier horn section, but the overall effect ruins the song because it’s too clean. The true test of this album though is “Ventilator Blues.” Any Stones fan will tell you the key to this record is this hard-edged number, alas the edges have been rounded somewhat with this new remastering, but the track still holds up against original mix from ’72 purely for Jagger’s performance. Songs that sound significantly better include the gospel-inspired “Shine A Light” featuring Billy Preston on Hammond B-3. The background singers there now sound like a choir.

Disc two features 10 previously unreleased tracks, a rarity among Stones albums because the band usually recorded and released everything they wrote either at the time or years later they would add them on to subsequent albums. With this re-issue, Jagger, Richards and even Mick Taylor went back into the studio to finish some of these tracks, with mixed results. Some of these songs, such as “Plundered My Soul” and “So Divine,” sound like B-sides to me; that is, good enough to be recorded but not part of the final album. But the new Rolling Stones song is “Following the River” produced by Don Was with a new lyric and vocal track from Mick Jagger. It’s what he calls a “kiss-off song,” one full of regret over a broken relationship. It’s a great mix of the old sound with the new.

-- John Corcelli is a musician, actor, broadcaster and theatre director.

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