Welcome to another installment of Sundays at the Sanctuary. Audiophile and E-migo Wayne Shelor is back this morning for a conversation on the re-mastered Exile On Main Street, which has stood as a rock masterpiece since its original release in 1972. How do you improve on the Rolling Stones at their best?
By Wayne Shelor
Bass player Scott Dempster was our Glimmer Twins zealot and house heretic, and -- a professional musician still (The Lesser Gods) -- he’s lived the bare-knuckled, spit-in-yer-eye blues personified by the Stones. So he was elated to learn of the re-mastering of the Stones’ 1972 18-track double LP, Exile On Main Street, a recording Rolling Stone magazine ranks as the seventh-greatest album of all time.
Released a few weeks ago, the exquisite 2LP/2CD/DVD/50-page picture book Deluxe Edition is worthy of its venerable heritage, yet after numerous auditions of both the audiophile vinyl LPs and the CDs (the second contains previously unreleased songs from the recording era), I believe the best thing about Exile is not the music.
Heresy, perhaps, but the packaging outshines the sonics, although the music is comparatively transparent and certainly never sounded better. Mick Jagger’s voice is no longer buried in the mix; Mick Taylor’s guitar integration with Keith Richards (who sings Happy, I’d forgotten about that!) is the symbiotic stuff of Siamese twins; Tumbling Dice is elevated by the hand-polished clarity of the vocal tracks; Nicky Hopkins’ piano patinas are game-changing on an album that is everything the Stones ever were: country, honky-tonk, gospel and straight-ahead rock, all delivered with a bluesy sneer. The channel separation overall is now more pronounced without being distracting, and the home video-style DVD is compelling, with remarkable time-transporting decades-old concert footage and behind-the-scenes surprises.
Comma, however: the brass (Rocks Off, Let It Loose, All Down the Line) is still thin and unopened by 21st Century production technology (although the sax on Rip This Joint -- a song every garage band should play -- will get even old men outta their La-Z Boy chairs); Charlie Watts’ snappin’ snare still lacks the immediacy and venom of his live performances; and the incredible headspace and depth of the soundstage on Sweet Black Angel reveal what coulda/shoulda been done to the rest of the album.
But the most arresting -- and aggravating -- change (good or bad) to this venerated document is its cover: the iconic art has been bowdlerized by an amateur graphic artist. Compare the new to the original and ask yourself: “Would anyone dare do this to the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band?”
After reaching my own conclusions -- impressed, but somewhat disappointed with playback minutiae -- I asked Scott what he thought about the Exile project, expecting scope, detail and analysis from the life-long Stones fan. His reply was as succinct as it was revelatory: “I fuckin’ love it!”
And he’s right. I’ve come to understand that this project, the Exile re-masters, is about as close to a perfect album as anyone’s ever likely to make. And I know the difference between what I want … and what I need. ‘Cause when you get right down to it, it’s only rock ‘n’ roll.
And I like it!