Rating My CD’s: Exile on Main Street

exileonmainstreet58. The Rolling Stones — Let it Bleed

Recently I issued a half-formed opinion on double-albums. A prejudice, really, arising as much from ADHD as any learned assessment of music criticism. At best, an observation:

I don’t usually like double-albums. I find them generally undisciplined, self-absorbed affairs. Sometimes, as with The White Album, or Exile on Main Street, that lack of rigid focus is a pleasant suprise. But here, it just reflects the band’s inability to control themselves.

That album was Physical Graffiti, which people may like, but no one considers disciplined. But what about the others? Was the White Album really a departure of form for the Beatles, or just the next logical progression in a band-dissolution that had been going on, according to some, since Rubber Soul?

I ask because Exile on Main Street has long been considered the Stones’ greatest achievement, their artistic and critical pinnacle before what’s become a forty-year victory lap. Recent nostalgia has but added to its lustre, with alt.country and garage-punk luminaries willingly giving talking-face time to the obligatory documentary. You can hardly blame them: the most famous band in the world, forced into exile by the confiscatory tax code, living it up in the South of France, recording a double-album in their mobile studio whenever they good get the gang together and sober? Who doesn’t want to comment on that?

The tendency of pop culture is to dramatize the unremarkable, and the further back in time an event lies, the need to “print the legend” starts to assert itself. So I could very easily riff for a few paragraphs off say, Lester Bangs’ assessment: “Exile is about casualties, and partying in the face of them.” and go to bed.

But for all of that, is there really anything going on here that’s not present on Beggar’s Banquet? Gutbucket hard rock? Check. Smashed, bluesy country? Check. Stoned gospel? Checkcheckcheckitycheck.

If Exile stands up better than Beggar’s, it’s because there’s more music to go around, and a smaller gap between the earworms and the filler. The first six tracks on this album outpunch any six contiguous tracks on any Stones album, ever. They left nothing on the field this time, assigned nothing to the cutting room floor. Maybe this is everyone’s favorite Stones album because it’s the last time they sound like they gave a damn.

For me, it’s been a long time figuring all this out. I’ve owned this forever, as long as any of my Stones discs, and the first few times I heard it, I did not get what was happeneing. It sounded all over the place and off-center, without any of the obvious hits to carry me through. The only tune I connected with was “Sweet Virginia,” but boy, did I connect with that. It was a perfect, an invitation to dirty yourself and clean yourself at the same time, made full of worldly knowledge that I was too young to have thend didn’t know until that point that I wanted. Now I dig the whole messy thing, and don’t feel quite comfortable unless I can spare the time to listen to the whole thing. Unlike Let it Bleed, which felt comfortable as an old jacket the first time I heard it, Exile has new revelations every listen.

Grade: LL

Further Rolling Stones CD Reviews:

Rating My CD’s: Sticky Fingers

stickyfingers57. The Rolling Stones — Sticky Fingers

You could probably make an argument, if you really wanted, about the relative decline of Andy Warhol album covers by an exegesis of the “iconic” Velvet Underground & Nico cover as against the Sticky Fingers cover. For the Velvets, the genitalia was suggestion, conveyed via the kind of joke that middle schoolers could get. Five years later, as the Sixties Insurrection became the Seventies Satyricon, the need to feign interest in anything besides genitalia diminished, so we were treated to this.

That’s why I never even bought this album until last year, despite owning every other one of the “Holy Quadrilogy”. The joke in the album name was just too dumb. And the only songs I knew from it “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses”, were the ones from that era I cared least about — “Sugar” always seemed like a bastard offspring of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Honky Tonk Woman” and “Wild Horses” was the kind of song that got covered by mid-90’s womyn-rawkers to accompany dramatic moments on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

But they don’t call it completism for nothing, and some recent readings convinced me that some of the country-folk-rock of the early 70’s deserved a listen. So I plunked down for the most recent remastering of Fingers (complaints of fans of the previous version on Amazon notwithstanding). And I’m glad I did.

This record has an understated beauty that none of the other Stones albums of this era can boast. Stuff like “Sway,” “Moonlight Mile,” and “Sister Morphine” sound like nothing at all the first run-through, only to get better and better with each listen. But the biggest surprise for me was “Dead Flowers,” which I did not know was a Stones song, being familiar only with the Townes Van Zandt version that closes out The Big Lebowski. And while there’s nothing wrong with that version, It’s hard not to prefer the peppier original (covering the Stones is harder than most people think, because Keith plays his guitar with a very specific tuning).

And yes, it’s impossible to hear “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin'” without images of Joe Pesci in Casino dancing about in your head. That’s all right; the song overcomes it’s cinematic baggage, combining with “You Gotta Move” to create some of the stinkiest blues the band ever laid down. So, like Let it Bleed, this album evenly balances between hard-rock punch and country-rock melody. That was what the Stones were best at, and they never quite did it better than this.

Grade: LL

Rating My CD’s: Hot Rocks

Rolling_stones_-_hot_rocks56. The Rolling Stones — Hot Rocks 1964-1971

This is where it all began for me.

I became a fan of the Rolling Stones about halfway through college, at the end of a late night viewing of Full Metal Jacket in a friend’s appartment. We were both of us familiar with the movie but had not seen it all the way through, and had some kind of odd theory that Gomer Pyle and Animal Mother were the same dude (probably my theory, given how wrong it was). I was pulled in by the perversity of the flick and smacked in the face by the end, when the survivor of Tet march lockstep through the ruins of Hue, Vietnam singing the Mickey Mouse Club theme song. And as the credits came up out of the fade, “Paint it Black”

It was perfect. I got it. I was a fan.

Continue reading → Rating My CD’s: Hot Rocks

Rating My CD’s: Let it Bleed

letitbleed55. The Rolling Stones — Let it Bleed

I don’t remember if I bought this before or after Their Satanic Majesties Request. I feel like it was after, because my earliest memory of having it was living in my duplex after college, when I distinctly remember putting the ticket from seeing the Stones on the ’99 No Security Tour into the CD booklet.

That ticket is still there. It was my very first concert to see a big-name Rock band, unless you count the time House of Pain came to my college, which I don’t (the They Might Be Giants/Violent Femmes show, on the other hand…). I bought the tickets last minute: they were rear-view for $50 apiece. I bought four, got two of my friends to go, and sold the last one at face value to a scalper on the way in. It’s the only time I’d ever seen the Stones, and I thought it was great. For that matter, I still do.

Let it Bleed is an easy album to like. It’s one of the Holy Quadrilogy of Stones albums from their ’68-’72 peak. It opens with “Gimme Shelter” and closes with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” There’s some filler, but not much, and as filler goes, vastly exceeds the filler on later albums (listen to “You Got the Silver” and then “Far Away Eyes” from Some Girls. I dare you). This was a band at the height of their craft, and they sound like they’re enjoying themselves.

Joy is not a word that gets associated with the Stones a lot. Their image – R&B badboys swaggering and sneering – pushed away from that. But joy is the mood this album puts me in. Even the supposedly  dark songs, like “Shelter” and “Midnight Rambler” are fairly bursting with toe-tapping energy. “Rambler,” despite being about the Boston Strangler (or something along those lines), seems entirely-tongue-in-cheek. Keith Richards, in his perfectly rambling Autobiography, Life, said that the lyrics were just snatches of ideas in headlines.

This rings true. It’s hard to imagine the Stones taking anything seriously in 1969, even with the death of Brian Jones and, later that year, Altamont. Even “Sympathy for the Devil,” still their most chilling song, has a joke at the center of it: the devil is a gentleman, and whatever his crimes, has an expectation of courtesy. You don’t survive in the music business for fifty years by taking matters of life, death, and evil seriously. That ain’t your job.

So for me, the album’s real centerpiece is the title track, which grants a kind of grace to the listener. We all need someone to bleed on; you’re screwed up, I’m screwed up, but it’s okay. When Mick drawls “Bleed it all right,” while Charlie bashes the cymbals, I feel the happiness roaring out of my speakers, like the mood at a hippie wedding after a food fight when the bride is still laughing. It’s all gonna be all right.

The other side of this album is the Stones starting to move past the electric blues that weened them to a more country/Delta style, leaving Chicago for Mississippi. They’d started this on Beggar’s Banquet, but the songs are that bit looser here, that bit more comfortable. That’s why “Love in Vain” sounds so fully like Robert Johnson; they didn’t try to stuff it with unecessary elements: guitar, harmonica, and voice were all that was needed. That’s why “Country Honk” sounds like so much fun (I even prefer it to the single version). The soul, the blues, the joke is all there: “She blew my nose and then she blew my mind.”

I’d go so far as to say that this was my favorite Stones album, maybe. It depends on my mood, to be honest. Exile on Main Street has really grown on me, truth be told, and I do like Out of Our Heads and Aftermath (which I have on vinyl). I will say that no matter how many times I’ve heard it, or how long I go without hearing it, that I never ever tire of it. Like the Stones themselves, it’s like an old friend.

Grade: DI

Rating My CD’s: Their Satanic Majesties Request

theirsatanicmajesties 54. The Rolling Stones — Their Satanic Majesties Request 

This album, long drawing question marks and sneers from the taste historians of the 60’s, has recently been undergoing a critical reanalysis. Which is to say, I read some guys in Magnet say some positive things about it in a head-to-head discussion of Beatles and Stones albums. For a long time, it’s been detracted as a lame me-too response to Sgt. Pepper’s by people who can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t like Sgt. Pepper’s.

Well, meet that guy. I used to severely dislike the Beatles, partially for the irritating ubiquity of their nostalgia, mostly because I found them neutered. Yes, they wrote some great songs. They also wrote a lot of quite boring songs. And for being the Most Important Rock Band, they seemed, to this critic, to do precious little actual rocking. For every “Back in the USSR”, there’s three of “Dear Prudence” “Oh Blah Di, Oh Blah Da,” or “When I’m Sixty-Four”. Which are perfectly fine pop songs, but hardly rock n’ roll.

I’ve come around on them some. I like Rubber Soul and Revolver a good bit, and changed my mind on Abbey Road and Magical Mystery Tour. But I thought Sgt. Pepper portentously dull when I first heard it, and haven’t heard anything to change my mind. I’m a reasonable man, so if someone can explain to my why I should like “She’s Leaving Home” or “Being  for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” or any of the rest of it, I’m listening.

And my initial response to Satanic Majesties was much the same. It seemed like an obligatory infusion of pastel whimsy into an established pop format, that didn’t really have the guts to go full-psychedelic, like Pink Floyd or Cream. It sounded apologetic and off-center, like it knew it was supposed to be something else. I put “She’s a Rainbow” on a mix tape called Dumb Songs I Like and left it alone for years.

This winter, with the obligation to review it sitting around in my head, I gave it a few spins in the car, and was rather surprised by how much I dug what was coming out of the stereo. I mean, I always kinda like “2000 Light Years From Home” and the aformentioned “She’s a Rainbow” but “Citadel”  and “In Another Land” in particular sounded oddly fresh. And the rest of it cohered a good deal better than I had first thought. So I am fully prepared to announce that I will actually start listening to this one more. There are moments when I will actually want it, not just to avoid feeling like I’m neglecting something I paid good money for back in college.

Grade: L

I Write About the Rolling Stones

One of the things I had in mind for this blog was a combination of my politics blog, Revolutionary Nonsense, with my music blog, Genre Confusion, mostly because writing two blogs was exhausting. And while my political writings shifted over here with ease, the music criticism hasn’t. Genre Confusion was about a lot of things (hatred of trendies and their trendy music mags, pointing out the iterations of the music-industry double-helix), but the major project was called Rating My CD’s: a review of every last disc in my collection, by genre, alphabetically, and by release date. Which is to say, I start with a group of basic rock discs (as oppose to Jazz, Blues, Hip-Hop, Punk & Metal), and I review the Beatles before Johnny Cash, and I do Rubber Soul before Revolver. I managed about 50 of these before Genre Confusion got folded. You can check the noise out here.

Since the move, I’ve managed to review the following:

In that last one, I promised “Next week, the Rolling Stones.” That was in April of 2012. So, Yeah.

Whatever. Check this space for a lot of rambling about the World’s Oldest Rock n’ Roll Band. I’ve got a few Stones CD’s, so this could take a while. What’s a week, anyway? It’s not like the Stones are going anywhere.

Men this old have no business making a song this good.

(Yeah, I changed the theme again. The other one shrunk the blog posts too much.)

Rating My CD’s: Reveal

53. REM — Reveal

I bought this — or rather, my aunt bought it for me, and I may have paid her back — at a Costco, because I saw it on the way out after getting the full Costco experience (the mayonnaise…THE MAYONNAISE). Back in 2001, I thought that it had lovely melodies and almost no emotional impact. Eleven years later, after an extensive two-week program of listening to it to find unheard nuances, I think the exact same thing.

So the critics are right. If emotional truth and connection is what you expect from REM — which, after all, was once their stock-in-trade — then skip this one. You won’t care about it no matter how long it sits, like an extra coaster, in your CD tower.

This concludes my REM CD’s. Next week, The Rolling Stones.

Grade: OK