The Eagerly Awaited Review of the Exile Boondoggle
I know you’ve all been waiting with bated breath.
I still love Exile. I love the idea of the reissue. I pre-ordered, blindly, the ginormous superdeluxe extra-special can’t-live-without-it box set.
I am disappointed. Mainly from a cost-value perspective. But first, here is what I love about it:
1. The newly mastered vinyl — I even went out and got a new needle for the turntable I barely use. That sounded great. But then I went into the closet to get the old fashioned stereo speakers, the kind with woofers and tweeters all in one cabinet, to use in place of those rinky-dink little cubes that come with the entry-level surround sound system in my basement man cave (my home stereo systems are lacking. The one in my car is probably the best). Now, I am in vinyl heaven again.
The records, the actual records, sound unbelievably great! I wish I had a high end tube system now so I could sit with a martini and immerse myself further in this masterpiece.
2. “Plundered My Soul.” Via bootlegs, I already knew most of the other outtakes (including the must-have “Loving Cup II,” from 1969) that are now included on the bonus disc. I had never heard this song. And it is great, really truly great. However, I can see why it was left off; it has an almost identical groove as “Tumbling Dice.” They had so many songs that they probably chose to not finish off another similar song. OK, it certainly is not as excellent as “Tumbling Dice” of course. But that song is pretty much the Holy Grail of Stones grooves, and this one has the same feel! That alone should make it stand as a great outtake, on par with some of those Metamorphosis tracks. Very few bands, Stones included, have ever been able to recapture that seminal feel of “Tumbling Dice.” It just barely holds together, it is so impossibly loose. The pocket is so deep. Charlie just barely making it in in time, but resting comfortably in the shuffle, confident of the band being able to all hit the same relaxed stride and stay there.
So in my fantasy mind, Jagger hears the backing tracks, some 30-something years later, and realizes now what everyone was going on about for so many years. This is why Exile is great, the almost ineffable feel of the record, the Stonsey-ness. When I first heard “Plundered My Soul,” I was riding in my car and it came on the classic rock station. I literally pulled over and sat in my car, trying to re-tag it over and over on Shazam to try to find out what the hell record this song is from. Is it a new Stones song? A Jagger solo song? Some deep track from one of the many post-Tattoo You records that slipped on by me? The iPhone came up dry a few times until it finally dawned on me that this must be an Exile outtake. An Internet search when I got home confirmed it.
Continuing my fantasy sequence, Mick is digging through tapes, or rather, sitting back as an engineer is doing so for him, and all of a sudden he hears this sexy, slinky groove and it hits him. So he scribbles some words — which, even as tossed off as they likely were, are still better than 90% of rock & roll lyrics:
I hate quittin’ but I’m close to admittin’ I’m a sorry case.
But on quiet reflection, my sad rejection’s not a total disgrace.
But I do miss your quick repartee and the smile that lights up your face.
You’ll be a hard act to follow. A bitter pill to swallow.
You’ll be tough, oh you’re tough to replace.
Mick sings in his 2009-era voice, or a variation thereof; he is trying to mimic his younger self, a little more vowelly than recent performances, but still with a bit of that pinched quality that has marked his latter years. But there is a true passion there, and the lyric mines that same aging-Lothario vibe he has done so well on other songs, like “Evening Gown.” It really has that urgent, almost desperate quality found on the other Exile tracks, where the lead vocals are so low in the mix, as if struggling to be heard. When juxtaposed against the easy grooves like this one, the result is soul akin to Otis Redding sides. When the same urgent vocals are paired with raging or simmering rockers like “All Down the Line” and “Ventilator Blues,” the result is the kind of wailing blues/rock perfected by Muddy and Wolf and taken in other directions by punk-informed singers like Jeffrey Lee Pierce.
Mick also adds those edgy, low-mixed, high close harmonies that Keith used to sing and which were such an important distinguishing characteristic of peak-era Stones records and live shows — and this, along with Bill Wyman’s bass parts is a crucial missing element from latter-day Stones. So while Mick and some of the backing singers replicate Keith-sorts of parts, Bill Wyman is here (one assumes; credits from the record have always been unreliable and have not been made any less so in the new release) swinging along with Charlie as only he seemed able to do. Also adding to the original Exile quality is the inimitable Nicky Hopkins on piano. No one sprinkles Stones songs with piano goodness like Nicky did. The crispy open-G-tuned guitars skronk through small Fender and Ampeg amps. And the horns of Jim Price and Bobby Keys seems to honk down under the mix as well.
So, the original tracks all emanate from the original early-’70s sessions, with the newly recorded vocals laid on top. But then the prodigal son, the aged angel fallen from grace, Mick Taylor, my one-time guitar idol, is brought back in to the family fold and lays down blistering classic lead guitar lines as if he never missed a beat. For those who have not followed this sad story, you can find this update here, from 2009. To hear him back playing these classic sorts of parts, brings tremendous warmth to the hearts of fans like me.
I thought “Plundered My Soul,” as with the other outtakes, would be of mild interest for me. But it has gone from a smile-inducing bonus to my favorite song of the summer. I can’t stop listening to it. It has that sort of feel of a summer hit songs from my youth.
So, there are my loves. Here is what I merely like about the re-issue:
1. CD remaster — sounds fine. The first digital iteration of Exile, as well as Sticky Fingers and other records, was atrocious. But the Virgin digital remasters some years back seemed to correct this, so this seem merely redundant. I might be off on this (sonically and/or from a historical recounting). My ears are constantly ringing with tinnitus nowadays, so don’t trust me.
2. The packaging – I already have the Dominique Tarle Exile book, so I have seen most of the pictures included in the book. The credits that are contained in this new book seem to do little to clarify who plays what on which songs. In fact, it just seems to err toward including people, like we are supposed to all of a sudden believe Bill Wyman plays bass on all of the songs. The book itself is sort of cheap looking, with raw, thin cardboard cover. And it feels ill-conceived, with some filler of tour memorabilia. But it is great to have a new,
big reprint of the cover, the individual record sleeves, and the re-issued postcards.
3. The rest of the outtakes — They are mostly of casual interest to me, though I have loved “Loving Cup II” since first hearing it when doing research for my book.
But I am mostly disappointed that this pretty flimsy update costs so much. I naively assumed that the DVD actually contained full clean prints of Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones and Cocksucker Blues, in addition to this new documentary about the creation of the album. But all that it contains are very short clips of the older films (which I also have on bootleg versions) and what amounts to a trailer for the doc. Are you kidding me? For the “discounted” rate of $117?! They can’t throw in at least one of these in full length?
And the documentary, which of course I shelled out another $10 to download, is also pretty shallow, though I suspected it would be. Sure, there are a few nuggets that were new, including some great commentary from Mick Taylor, Bill Wyman, and Bobby Keys. Most of the information has long been available. And while I knew there could not be much uncovered film footage from the sessions, I was unprepared for the dramatic re-enactments straight out of a bad Discovery Channel 13 show. Otherwise, it is the typical Ken Burns-like panning over still shots with some running commentary underneath.
The other good nuggets from the film include the precious little studio banter captured on what must be reels and reels of tape. By all accounts of Stones’ sessions from 1969-onward, they just let copious amounts of tape roll while they jammed, arranged, etc. Why can’t we have more of that?
Save for the vinyl, the Pet Sounds box set puts this Exile one to shame. The former has all the stuff that hardcore fans drool over — alternate takes; outtakes; vocal-only takes; backing track-only takes; separate mono and stereo mixes and masters; a disc of the arranging and conducting banter with Brian at the helm; and so on, all for a fraction of this heavy entry fee they are getting for Exile.
EDIT: Some kind folks in the comments section drew my attention to this great, in-depth interview with Don Was about Exile. He seems to concur with me on many of the specifics I love about the record. And he articulates it all so well.