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*** SHM - Super High Material
There's always a lot of talk about the murky mix and the low production values of Exile On Main St. But the quintessential thing about the record is its tight focus on the basic components of The Stones' down-and-dirty blues-based rock 'n' roll songs and style.
How they got turned into a record is one thing. But how the band wrote them and played them is another, and as a collection of rock-country-blues songs, Exile is a masterpiece. There are few moments that can be faulted on this album: it's a massively powerful, almost devastating experience. It is also one of the most discussed.
Exile On Main Street takes up where Sticky Fingers left off, with the Stones wiping out one set of solutions - heading into exile to escape the cops and the robbers of Her Majesty's Inland Revenue - only to be confronted with another pile of problems, largely (according to popular myth) in the form of sex and drugs.
Naturally, the only way to confront these powerful demons is with the third part of the Holy Trinity: rock 'n' roll.
The record comes on like an out-and-out rocker. Rocks Off isn't a subtle title and the song's not delicate either, although there's a wistful undertone to the lyrics that hear inaudible voices on the street and long for release that only comes in sleep.
Rip This Joint doesn't need a lot of explanation either: the fastest song the Stones have ever recorded, it's an absolute stomper, with Mick Jagger sounding at his most deranged, howling and whooping like Jumpin' Jack Flash himself, semi-incomprehensible nonsense about 'Birmin'ham and Alabam' not givin' a dam' bubbling in frenzied delight from those famous lips.
The dance mood continues, albeit at a slightly less crazy pace, with Shake Your Hips, before slowing into a more laconic shuffle on Casino Boogie.
Three tremendous slow numbers follow: Tumbling Dice, Sweet Virginia and then the heart-breaking tribute to the guitar player, Torn and Frayed.
These songs are so famous that writing anything new about them is practically impossible. It is worth saying, though - even though this, too, has surely been observed many times before - that the programming of these opening seven songs is absolutely inspired; hitting the listener up with three super-quick blasts of dancey-blues-rock, before bringing them down through a reflective, sorrowful mood into tearjerking country balladry.
The emotional control at work here is concealed by the messy sound values and the overall down-and-dirty mood of the music; but it's deliberate, and it's genius.
We then move through a three song sequence about lerrrve, ladies and gentlemen, in all its hope and glory: the love of freedom on Sweet Black Angel; the pleading desire of Loving Cup; and - Keith's special moment not only on the whole album but in the whole ouevre and history of The Rolling Stones - Happy.
On we move from there, leaving behind the light of love and turning instead to the lingering darkness in the haunted cellar beneath the sun-spaced rooms of the great villa Nellcote.
First up, the mischievous-sounding, but pain-ridden Turd on the Run: "Well I lost a lot of love over you."
Then the tortured low point of the whole album, Ventilator Blues: "...your spine is cracking and your hands, they shake... When you're trapped and circled with no second chances, Your code of living is your gun in hand. "
And finally the potential redemption of I Just Want To See His Face: surely the most (deliberately) indistinct vocal (lead and chorus) ever recorded by the band. "Sometimes you ain't got nobody and you want somebody to love. Then you don't want to walk and talk about Jesus, You just want to see his face."
And then we're out and up and running again, into a great wall of rhythmic blues rock that builds and builds towards the end of the album, moving at varying tempo through obvious rockers like Let It Loose and All Down The Line; the deep blues of Stop Breaking Down; the rock and roll prayer that is Shine A Light (whose title Scorsese took as his title when he turned his all seeing eyes upon the Stones); and, finally, the acknowledgement that something has been endured here: Soul Survivor.