Wednesday, December 31, 2008
When a classic shouldn't be-The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main St.
Just like last months pick of Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys, Exile on Main Street is widely considered one of the 10 or so greatest albums ever made, and The Rolling Stones' masterwork. I'm a huge fan of The Stones, but Exile isn't even one of their 3 best albums, much less one of the greatest ever made. Mick Jagger himself isn't quite sure why it gets the praise it does either, saying: "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." I think that's the perfect assessment of Exile on Main Street, it's nice, but overall the songs aren't the greatest, and they've definitely put out better work in their long career.
The Stones occasionally had a tendency to open their albums with the best song ("Gimme Shelter" starts off Let It Bleed, "Sympathy for the Devil" begins Beggar's Banquet, "Start Me Up" leads off Tattoo You), which to me often lends the discs the feeling of getting worse as it goes along. That's not the case with Exile, which opens with the decent rocker "Rocks Off", which although it's a favorite of many fans, is not one of mine. They continue along with the rockabilly of "Rip This Joint" and their cover of the blues classic "Shake Your Hips" (which to anyone who's heard Robert Randolph's version just seems the epitome of weak and lifeless). Finishing off the initial quartet of songs is "Casino Boogie" which although not a great song does feature some nice slide guitar from Mick Taylor, and is another example of The Stones using horns (saxophone in particular) better than any other rock band.
Before they could make an entire album of mid-level material, they break out "Tumbling Dice", which is not their best song, but it is truly great and is probably the best representation of what The Stones are all about. It rocks, it's catchy, and it has a terrific groove. When they follow up with the excellent "Sweet Virginia" (one of their best country songs), the album really seems to be going in the right direction and possibly deserving of its praise. But the next few songs are all either ok or just good, none are great, including "Loving Cup" (which we saw Jack White ruin in the Scorsese concert documentary Shine a Light earlier this year). The rocker "Happy" has long been a concert favorite due to it getting Keith Richards to step up to the microphone, but every time I hear it I wish Jagger sang lead on it, because it's a good song that gets marred by its sub-par vocals.
The next run of songs holds nothing of particular note, although I kind of like "Ventilator Blues" and "Let it Loose". The last great thing on the disc is the penultimate song "Shine a Light", a Billy Preston guest-starring, piano driven gospel masterpiece. It's one of the bands greatest achievements, has some more terrific slide from Mick Taylor, and it holds one of Jagger's best vocal performances. The album closer is "Soul Survivor", which is disappointing because "Shine a Light" would've been the perfect ending note. As a whole the album isn't bad, again like Pet Sounds it's actually pretty good, just undeserving of the endless praise it receives. For an album that has 18 songs, it should really have more than 3 great ones on it. It's another one that has a tremendous reputation, but I find it far inferior to their less-acclaimed releases like Let it Bleed or Some Girls, and it's certainly nowhere in the realm of greatness that their masterpiece Sticky Fingers is in.