No matter the different areas they wander into, the Rolling Stones will always be a rock and roll band. As the decades march on, the Stones have become even more of a bastion of rock. Their records get progressively more rock and blues oriented, and have a simpler structure with each one. Their live show is centered on the resurrection of rock and roll. Their like Christian fundamentalists in that regard; while the rest of the world is evolving, they’re holding on to the past with an iron grip.
The past can be a glorious thing. There’s so much rich history from which the Rolling Stones can draw, and there has been for a long time. That’s one of the central ideas Brian Jones had when he formed the group: covering old blues tunes. As far as Jones was concerned, the Rolling Stones were supposed to be a cover band. I wonder what he would think of the band nowadays if he weren’t pushing up daisies.
Just like they never lost that rock and roll centering, they also have never stopped looking to the past for inspiration. That’s all over Exile On Main St. They don’t just look to the blues masters like Robert Johnson and Slim Harpo, but they’re also drawing in soul, funk, R&B, and a healthy dose of gospel music.
Using forms of music other than blues and rock is nothing new to the Stones (“Dead Flowers,” “Factory Girl”), but Exile is set apart from other Stones records is that it never sounds as authentic or heartfelt; not even close. For you Stones aficionados, take a second and compare “Torn and Frayed” to “Far Away Eyes” from Some Girls. One uses country music to create a sense of empathy, emotionalism at its best, and the other is a parody of country music, pointing out its most ridiculous aspects. You might not even notice “Torn and Frayed” is in the country vein because of its exposed-nerve rawness; “Far Away Eyes” is just silly.
But rock and roll is their forte, and they prove it on Exile. The albums starts of with a dirty “oh yeah!” that is only an indication of the entire album. “Rocks Off,” for all its fun and abandon, has harrowing lyrics. The Stones were very aware that they were doing a lot of drugs. In “Rocks Off,” lyricist Keith is talking in very candid terms about the exact cost of the drugs he’s taking. By his own admission, they leave him “splattered on a dirty road.”
“Rocks Off” also features a brass section. This is something that is all over Exile. Sticky Fingers started the trend, “Brown Sugar” and “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” both having saxophone solos and “Bitch” using brass right up front to play the main riff. But on Exile, over half of the songs feature some brass instrument. It worked beautifully for them on Sticky Fingers so there’s no reason to think it won’t have excellent results on their next album. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Speaking of sax solos, “Rip This Joint” has a blazing one. Everything else about this song is blazing, as well. It wins the award for Fastest Tempo of any Stones song, before or after. It’s like a Route 66 trip through America, but that of an illegal immigrant being hunted down by customs.
The most recent Stones albums have shifted down to slower gears by the 2nd or 3rd track (“Love In Vain,” “Wild Horses,” “No Expectations”), but Exile just barrels on. The 3rd track here is “Shake Your Hips,” originally done by Slim Harpo. The Slim version drips with sexuality, hinting at naughtiness but still with a sense of fun. When put in the hands of Mick Jagger, though, it’s all naughtiness. I imagine Mick’s serpentine movements and effortless groove, and I almost think he’s singing this song to himself. “Shake Your Hips” has gobs of danger and sin to it, something I think Mr. Harpo would have approved of.
Things finally take a downturn tempo-wise, but “Casino Boogie” is no lilting, sentimental ballad. It has a certain singability, encouraged by the drunken sway of the music, even though I still don’t know what the words are; Mick and Keith, as they sometimes do, seem more interested in the way words sound than the actual words. And it is actually a boogie, in the classical, music theory definition of the word. I always thought “boogie” just meant a general style of blues-type music, but there’s actually a technical, objective definition. My 3 semesters of Music Theory in college didn’t teach me that, either; I learned it from Wikipedia.
Exile is a double album, despite that it fits on one CD and is sold as such. If you first experienced it on CD, as I did, it seemed weird that it had 18 songs when every other Stones album has at most 13; most merely 9 or 10. The fact that it’s really 9 and 9, rather than 18, was a well-kept secret from the younger generation – or at least from me, anyway.
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