Exile For the iPod Generation

Making a publicity appearance on the Jimmy Fallon show for the latest reissue of Exile on Main Street, Keith Richards professed a preference for vinyl. The audience applauded. Has an expression of a preference for CD ever gotten such a reaction—at least in the last decade? Not likely.

Making a publicity appearance on the Jimmy Fallon show for the latest reissue of Exile on Main Street, Keith Richards professed a preference for vinyl. The audience applauded. Has an expression of a preference for CD ever gotten such a reaction—at least in the last decade? Not likely.

But has Keith, or Mick actually listened to this miserable excuse of a remastering job? I’d like to think not. They’d relocated to the South of France in the summer of 1971 and set up a performance space in the basement of Villa Nellcote to record much of it using the remote Rolling Stones mobile truck because they claim to have been essentially broke and needed to get away from the UK taxmen. Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts were the most reluctant of tourists.

The band got to work, with Jimmy Miller producing and brothers Andy and Glyn Johns at the mixing desk of the then (and arguably now) state of the art mobile studio. With a team like that, production excellence and well-crafted sound were almost inevitable.

But what’s the excuse now for this bland sounding reissue? They surely don’t need the money, though UMG the record company now controlling the post Decca/London catalog sure does.

The deluxe packaging is attractive. It includes a slip case, a hard covered clothbound book containing some great Dominique Tarlé session pictures as well as Anthony De Curtis’ prissy sounding annotation that’s as bland and soft as the sound and about as illuminating and dank as the basement recording venue.

Contemporary comments from Mick, Keith and the others add value. It’s interesting hearing Keith proclaim satisfaction with the mix saying that he considers Mick a band member not a front man and Mick saying he felt his voice was too far down in the mix and that it sounded thin because of the basement’s humidity. Back in 1971 some suggested blow was the reason—not that it matters.

When first released in 1972 Exile…. was considered only a partial success. To many critics it was too long and sprawling and the mix a muddy mess, though anyone with a decent stereo rig (which meant zero rock critics at the time) heard a pretty damn good, complex production, mixed perfectly as long as you bought into the vocal pushback. To those who couldn’t get the mix, it sounded like a tired and confused band, perhaps lacking in direction. That was wrong.

The passage of almost forty years has only served to burnish and add value to the music. While we are told this is a singles-driven record market and Exile…. was made during the dawn of the album era, listening straight through now is more rewarding than it was back in 1972 because what may have sounded like filler back then has taken on added significance.

The record didn’t sell all that well and disappeared from the charts quickly. Double LPs were expensive, aside from a few stand out tracks like the opener, people thought it was too long and packed with filler and by 1972 the Stones had been around for a long time and the music scene was changing.

Gone were the later Decca days’ tidy recordings and mixes. Listeners who reveled in the pristine sound of Let It Bleed and the clean, simple arrangements, may at first have become disoriented by the sprawling, wonderful mess of blaring horns and saxes, honky tonk piano and back up chicks. This sounded to some like a party record made during drunken debauchery but the photos and recollections point in another direction, though clearly the home studio scene produced its share of partying, party drugs, comradrie, comings and goings, and a loose, informal schedule that would have been impossible had the recording been produced using purchased studio time.

The final production, however, combines the recordings done in France, with sweetening done in L.A., sessions at Olympic and at Mick Jagger’s summer residence. Bobby Keys, Jim Price, Nicky Hopkins and Ian Stewart added their magic as needed on location in France because they were just hanging out and Stewart was there anyway, running the mobile truck.

After the late ‘60s heaviness, the Stones wanted to get back to rock’n’roll and their American musical roots. The album is a sweet mix of boogie, blues, soul, gospel, honky-tonk and country that didn’t sound lifted in 1972 and doesn’t now. These guys immersed themselves in American pop and roots music from the beginning and except for some mannered diversions like “Lady Jane,” they stuck with the plan.

The 10 track bonus disc is, like most bonus discs, utterly superfluous (with the exception of the slow, soulful alternate take of “Loving Cup,”) especially since Mick re-recorded many of the vocals for this reissue, pushing them up where he thinks they belonged. His voice sounds remarkably good here and the throw aways are still better than much of what passes for “A” material today from younger bands. Still, when you release a double LP, what’s left over isn’t likely to be compelling and most of this bonus material isn’t. It’s not bad, but when you hear it you’ll be happy it didn’t make the final cut. These tune are a musical bridges that connected the good stuff.

The slower “Loving Cup” wouldn’t have worked as well on the album as the one chosen, but here you get to savor the guitar interplay between Keith and Mick Taylor and Charlie Watts’ demo-miked but final take-played drumming. What a beautiful buzz! Perhaps the best “Loving Cup” is the one with Jack White on Martin Scorsese’s concert film “Shine a Light.” Just an opinion.

The half hour video including 16MM black and white home movies narrated by the band members is a wonderful, illuminating addition. “We always went to L.A. to finish our records,” Mick says. Charlie adds, “Keith would do his mix and then Mick would do his and then they’d argue over which was best and it used to go on and on…” They were so young, so productive, and having so much fun— though in the short “Cocksucker Blues,” you also see the boredom and drudgery of being on the road. Keith tosses a TV out a hotel room window. There’s color concert footage shot close-up showing how hard these guys worked on stage.

Now, about that sound: first I just played the new reissued double vinyl mastered by Doug Sax at The Mastering Lab. How many times have I heard this record? Probably hundreds. This new re-mastering sounded compacted, spatially flattened, deliberately dynamically compressed and shockingly bass-shy. The horns that are supposed to cut through with a mean edge on “Rocks Off” were limp, Charlie’s signature snare sound was soft. I mean it really sucks on a stereo but probably will sound swell on an iPod played back with cheap earbuds. The mastering gamesmanship does produce the sensation of more detail and greater transparency but it's sham detail and sham transparency. This production has had it's balls cut off.

Switching to the Stephen Marcussen mastered CD produced essentially the same blah results (you can hear the same tape "crinkle" 3 minutes into "Casino Boogie" on both) so blame him not Doug Sax who cut the vinyl from 44.1k/24 bit files and it sounds like it. The added bit depth does make the vinyl sound somewhat more detailed but why bother with the vinyl? Too bad, because the pressing quality is excellent. I have trouble believing this was pressed at United in Nashville. I bet it was pressed at Rainbo in L.A., which has really stepped up to the quality plate.

In fact why bother with this at all when if you play Bob Ludwig’s CD mastering for Virgin years ago, you’ll hear what this record is supposed to sound like, as intended for a real grown up stereo system, with bass, full dynamic range and as much three-dimensionality as redbook CD can manage, which admittedly isn’t much.

I compared original American, Japanese, Polish and German vinyl pressings to this limp noodle and even the Polish pressing, clearly from a copy of a copy of the master at best had more balls, but of course more noise and less detail and even less transparency.

I used to think the German Electrola pressing was the best but now I think it’s the original American, mastered at Artisan in L.A. It’s really the original since the record was mixed at Sunset in L.A. and it has a similar midrange to this latest reissue, but it also has bass and treble and dynamics.

The German is hyped up in the presence region and the bottom end, giving the kick drums lots of punch and the horns great edge, but that sucks out the middle where Mick’s already dipped voice resides.

No doubt the Stones approved the test pressings that became the original issue. I certainly don’t think they listened much to this latest reissue before it was approved for release. If they did, what’s their excuse for this sorry sounding, limp noodle? If it was to make it sound “good” on earbuds, well that’s not good enough and a sorry way to leave it until someone does it right for a future generation interested in getting their butts kicked by good sound.

That will happen, I’m sure. Meanwhile, find yourself an original American pressing or Bob Ludwig’s Virgin CD and wait it out. Or if you’ve bought the deluxe box as I did, put your original pressings inside and you’ve got a swell souvenir and good sound. That said, even the graphics were poorly done.  G here for the details: http://floweringtoilet.blogspot.com/2010/05/exile-in-pixelville.html

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ray_gun's picture

This may not be the best album of their careers but it was one of the most interesting. - Scott Safadi