Legendary as it may be, Exile on Main St. presents a challenge for deluxe remastered reissues. Much of its myth lies in its murk, how its dense, scuzzy sound is the quintessential portrait of rock stars in decadent isolation, the legend bleeding into its creation so thoroughly it is impossible, and unnecessary, to separate one from the other. Without this nearly tactile sound, Exile wouldn’t be Exile, so remastering the record is a tricky business because it should not be too clean. The remaster on the 2010 reissue -- available in a myriad of editions containing variations of a single-disc remaster and a second disc expanded with ten unreleased tracks - doesn’t quite avoid that trap. When “Rocks Off” kicks off the record, what was previously dulled like aged silver is now is too bright: Mick Jagger’ s vocals leap and the keyboards ring clearly. Because this is Exile on Main St., a record recorded in a decaying French mansion, it’s impossible to scrape all the grime away from its layers, but the overall impression is that the original master tapes are now presented in high definition: it’s possible to hear what most individual instruments are doing on each track, which may lead for a greater appreciation of the Stones' monumental musicianship, but it’s somewhat at the expense of the album’s mystique.
Another pitfall in the plans for this deluxe expansion: there aren’t a whole lot of completed unreleased songs. The Stones had a habit of working leftovers from the prior album into a finished product, sometimes taking years to complete a song -- a practice that resulted in great songs but not much left in the vaults. Which isn’t to say there was nothing left behind from Exile’ s sessions: the Stones were living where they were recording, so they produced an enormous amount of music, working out the kinks in a song (represented here by alternate takes of “Loving Cup” and a Keith Richards-sung “Soul Survivor”), or wholly reworking an existing song as they did with the loose-limbed “Good Time Women,” which was later revised as “Tumbling Dice.” On occasion, they completed a song that didn’t make the cut, such as “I’m Not Signifying,” a heavily bootlegged shambolic blues that is just about as good as anything on the finished album, but usually they created instrumental beds designed to be completed later with vocals. In this particular case, a handful of these tracks were completed much, much later, with the band finishing up the songs some 38 years later for this deluxe edition. A great deal of attention was paid to making the new additions relatively seamless, with the band going so far as to bring in the long-departed guitarist Mick Taylor for some overdubs. If the end results don’t quite feel as thick as Exile, they nevertheless do feel remarkably like the classic Taylor era. Apart from “Following the River” -- a drowsy piano ballad that tries to rouse itself to blues-gospel -- these are good, sometimes excellent songs, particularly the loose, hip-shaking “Dancing in the Light” and the charging “Plundered My Soul.” At first it's hard not to stare at these hybrid tracks with skepticism, particularly because they’re eating up room that could have been used for other alternate takes, or perhaps the instrumentals themselves, or the occasional bootlegged song that didn’t make the cut, such as “Blood Red Wine,” but once that suspicion fades, you’re left with a handful of very good additions to the Stones songbook -- songs that don’t hold a candle to Exile but are remarkable re-creations of Taylor-era rock & roll, songs that could easily have been slid onto It’s Only Rock 'N Roll, when the group was easing into their grooves, confident that they were the greatest rock & roll band on earth. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine