Exile on Main St.
Rolling Stones Records 1972
Jimmy Miller

Side one:
1. Rocks Off
2. Rip This Joint
3. Shake Your Hips
4. Casino Boogie
5. Tumbling Dice

Side two:
1. Sweet Virginia
2. Torn and Frayed
3. Sweet Black Angel
4. Loving Cup

Side three:
1. Happy
2. Turd on the Run
3. Ventilator Blues
4. I Just Want to See His Face
5. Let it Loose

Side four:
1. All Down the Line
2. Stop Breaking Down
3. Shine a Light
4. Soul Survivor

The Stones let it loose in swirling repetition


Sometimes I feel like my brain is bogged down by the same 17 stories vying for space. There’s momentary relief on the pressure by releasing some of these thoughts in print and on the public, but there’s also an impulse to keep from repeating myself too often — no one wants to hear the same joke too many times.

Which is why I’ve fought the impulse to write something on the deranged, disorganized beauty of Exile on Main St. for the better part of a week assuming I had already done that. And I have. But specifically, I’ve been lost in the Leslie-speaker swirl of “Let it Loose” for most of that time and I’ve happily discovered I’ve yet to do a deep dive into that particular song.

If anything could justify its own book, and certainly there are a few that come close, it’s the jumble of blues, soul and rock and roll that lays in wait on Exile’s third side. It starts with the jump of Keith Richards’ “Happy” in all its messy glory, steps into the country swing of “Turd on the Run,” slithers through “Ventilator Blues,” and makes a brief stop in the glorious murk of “I Just Want to See His Face” before emerging in the glow of “Let it Loose.” If the song weren’t powerful enough on its own, it’s made all the more so by it’s placement at the end of that varied run.

The song begins with Keith Richards picking his way on the guitar, creating a warmth that echoes Exile’s basement origins. Mick Jagger joins in next via the album’s second session in Los Angeles, beginning an obscured storyline with the simple question of, “Who’s that woman on your arm / all dressed up to do you harm?”

From there, it’s all mystery while Richards and Mick Taylor’s guitars swirl around in the same repetitive pattern. Jagger is soon joined by Charlie Watts’ drums, Nicky Hopkins’ piano, Bobby Keys and Jim Price on the horns and a host of backing singers. They all work together to give the song its soul and gospel authority. The scene moves from the bar to the bedroom and back, with its narrator walking down side streets in search of something more than what’s been available.

The story is intentionally oblique, but it all feels so immediate and so real. It’s all emotional push with no specifics, and its integrity comes from the heartfelt reading of all the combined characters — the musicians and the character sketches within the lyrics.

This explosion of soul is all the more powerful courtesy of its placement in the tracklist — immediately following the strangest of all the disparate Exile tracks. Truly, the pairing of “I Just Want to See His Face” and “Let it Loose” works so well as to make the two virtually inseparable.

Fading in from one of the many basement jams that gave Nellcôte its legendary status, “I Just Want to See His Face” is a revival jam that never really has a clear message beyond, “Let this music relax your mind.” It’s an invitation into the Stones’ bohemian creative paradise, where cables were running down hallways, in and out of windows and snaking through open windows, its microphones placed somewhere north of haphazard in an attempt to capture every mangled sound that came from this makeshift studio. On this track in particular, it sounds like one microphone has managed to catch every passing note that came out every room at once. It’s muffled and bleeding and totally unprofessional by any engineer’s standards.

It’s also haunting and incredibly weird, and it captures the essence of what makes the record so mystifying. This tribal sound began emanating from a humid French basement, and it leads so beautifully into “Let it Loose,” as if the doors of the cellar had been kicked down and the music began to glow from within.

Without anything resembling details in the music and lyrics, it feels epic and romantic. And it’s built on repetition. A three-chord pattern with two variations on the fourth swirl around the song, never relenting but to build in intensity. It churns until it reaches a peak, and finally, someone hits the release valve and the final few notes trickle out while the background singers glide down to earth.

As well as it works within the context of its placement on Exile, it lends itself to playing on a loop incredibly well. It bundles sensation and soul with ease and never manages to feel old. There are stories that can feel old on its first telling, never mind the second. And there are those that feel ageless no matter the frequency, the ones that reveal new cracks and quirks on each listen.

For those, like “Let it Loose,” there are never too many times to hear the same thing again. And it somehow never feels the same.

Jan. 24, 2017

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