Exile on Main St. is less of an album than it is an experience, a sort of trip in which not only feel the music, you feel the circumstances in which the album was made under. When Mick Jagger sings, you can almost smell the alcohol on his breath. When Keith Richards plays one of his mountain-moving riffs, you feel yourself being carried away with it, so much that the sound almost becomes imbetted into your brain. When Bobby Keys gets to his climactic gets to his saxaphone solo, yeah, well, you get the idea.
But what really sets Exile on Main St. from other Stones albums, hell, from all other albums, is its inconsistency. Yes, its inconsistency. The Stones' reportedly greatest album never follows a straight, narrow path, it doesn't restrict itself to the pure dumb rock of Sticky Fingers. And, yes, I would flat out lying if I said that most of this is just pure dumb rock, not all of it is. There's no ambient interludes or twenty-minute synth solos or whatever is considered "art" these days, but its still different, its still carefully calculated, and it's not at rushed and slapped together like albums from the Stones' early days. It's better.
The album kicks off with side 1 (I have the vinyl version, so yes, that's why there are "sides".) and the opening barnburner, "Rocks Off", in which the first fifteen seconds are the most engaging and the greatest moments of the song: just pure rebellious mayhem, heavy and engaging and powerful, all at once. Then it ventures into a sour psychedelic area, and you think, "Didn't The Doors break up in 1971?" But you're rushed back to reality when the chorus starts back up again, all bad psychedilic breaks forgotten. "Rip This Joint" is essentially the beginning of "Rocks Off" for an entire song, and for this reason, it's one of the better songs on the album. Another reason it shines is because you're not yet sick of this saxaphone-dominated sound yet, so this seems like one good blast of sound after another. "Shake Your Hips" is a cover of a song of blues musician Slim Harpo, a point man of the 1950s Louisana swamp/blues movement. The guitar riff here is distinctive and memorable, but that's probably cause you heard it on ZZ Top's hit "La Grange". "Shake Your Hips" is much, much better than that radio biscuit, with Jagger's vocals fitting to a tee here, and that riff... it's sorta like "Louie, Louie". The Kingsmen suck, yet that song rocks, because of that riff. The Rolling Stones don't suck at all, and since the riff rocks, it pairs up to be hands down the best song on the album.
"Casino Boogie" is more of what the last three songs were, and than you get to the last song of side 1, and the first country tune on the album, "Tumbling Dice". I'm sure you've heard this song before: it was a Top Ten hit and is now a classic rock radio staple. But in contrast with the album, it's the perfect track to slow down the blistering pace the last four songs have built, the hangover after the ten beers you had at the biker bar the other night. And that's when the second part of this experience kicks in.
Side 2 doesn't have a single upbeat song on it, and is, as I call it, "the country side". This is a much slower side, and, I must say, a snoozer. The country songs aren't bad, they're pure, gritty, no-holds country tunes, just what you would expect out of a good song from the Stones. But you begin to wistfully wish that the Stones didn't want to make it seem TOO country, like they're fighting to get into the genre. What I'm saying is, they seem to want to hoke it up a little TOO much. "Torn and Frayed" has a hypnotic flow, and "Sweet Black Angel" has a weird Indian rhythm, and Jagger sings in a voice that doesn't seem like his own. It's an obvious experiment, and it sort of works, which is enough to land a spot on this double-LP album, while the final track on the first LP, and the side, is the dull "Loving Cup", a dull way to end the dullest side of the album.
But it only improves from there, with "Happy" starting out side 3. Like "Tumbling Dice", this is another legendary single from Exile on Main St., and is easily Keith Richards best performance. "Turd on the Run" is pure dumb rock, though you could've never of guessed that from its name, and it's fun, which is more than what the last side could say. "Ventilator Blues", the only original song that has writing help from someone besides the Jagger/Richards team (it's from Mick Taylor), is more of Jagger's song anyway. He sings, or screams his ***ing guts out, with the most passion and genuine exitement you can get on disk anywhere, and is definitely the standout vocal performance of the album. It's a good entrance to the weird "I Just Want to See His Face", which in turn is a good entrance into "Let It Loose." The lyrics are perfect; soulful and intensely personal, and the back-up singers and powerful organ provides extra flair to the swampy atmosphere of the song. It's more of a gospel song than rock n' roll, and is the only real epic on the album.
And we stumble into side 4, the final quarter of our experience, which is the most disjointed side of the album. It feels as though an album of this magnitude should of ended with "Let It Loose", as it should of been a sort of "A Day In The Life" for Exile on Main St. Instead, you're thrown into "All Down the Line", a fast, energetic number that actually does a good job of counterbalancing the epicness of "Let It Loose". But "Stop Breaking Down", a cover of Robert Johnson's song, is a bore, despite the fact that I freakin' LOVE Robert Johnson, and "Shine A Light" sputters when it descends into its faux gospel ending. "Soul Survivor" is an alright ending to four sides of mayhem, madness, experiments, and bad psychedelia (yeah, I still haven't gotten over "Rocks Off), but this is an album that has no real ending. You'll play it over and over and still discover more and more, find that the songs themselves are perfect. That's right, there isn't a true dud on the album. Some may venture into unwanted territory (*cough, "Rocks Off", cough *). In an album form, however, it feels more like a greatest hits collection, which for a lesser band, it very well could be. For the Stones, its just a journey; a sprawling, adventerous journey, with plenty of beer, drugs, women, and afterparty hangovers to be had along the way. Let the experience begin.