Reissues come and go. For rock 'n' roll acts past the age of 20, it's an inevitable part of keeping albums in print. Exile on Main St., the zenith of a four-year drive of diabolically great Rolling Stones music that began in 1968 with Beggar's Banquet, doesn't exactly work that way.
A bona fide gem revered far more now than it was upon release in 1972, it remains a boozy, bluesy, brassy epic — a double album of the Stones as true demons of the rock art form.
Now, 38 years after its initial release, Exile lives again. Granted, it has been reissued several times over the decades as the Stones jumped record labels (from Columbia, which issued it with a disgusting tin can sound, to higher quality mixes on Virgin and, now, Universal). This week, it comes to us in multiple new editions, including a boxed set full of books, DVDs and a price tag of $150.
What I will examine here is the more modest two-disc "deluxe edition," which sells for about $26. The first disc is the remastered Exile, 18 songs of bawdy rock 'n' roll with Mick Jagger singing with ragged fervency under layers of wicked soul-drenched horns (as on the party finale to Loving Cup), equally nasty guitar trade-offs between Keith Richards and Mick Taylor (on the Slim Harpo blues variation Casino Boogie) and the full-force support of the Stones' major ace-in-the-hole, Nicky Hopkins, the late session pianist who arguably never sounded better than he did on Exile.
The second disc is the real tease: 10 unreleased tunes from the Exile sessions with some modest modern cosmetics to make them complete. Of the lot, only the sweaty, horn-soaked regret of Plundered My Soul approaches the abandon of the original Exile. But the rest still makes for an immensely engaging listen, from the gospel-esque Following the River, which better approximates the Black and Blue-era Stones, to the streetwise funk of Passing the Wine (Sophia Loren) and a more somber take on the Exile closer Soul Survivor sung by Richards that enhances all the more one of the Stones' all-time great guitar riffs.
Again, these tracks don't so much augment the original Exile as complement it. They amount to postcards from another time, a hint of the sloppy greatness that percolated in the loose, dangerous grooves of Exile.
For those yearning for the Stones at their best, you can hardly match the devilish charm of the original Exile. For those now hungry for more after championing this classic for nearly four decades, now you have it. In spades.