Exile on Main Street is not Rocks Off's favorite Rolling Stones album. Never has been. That honor rests with Let It Bleed, and not for "Gimme Shelter" (OK, that's a lie), "Midnight Rambler" or "You Can't Always Get What You Want." No, for us it's always been the songs sandwiched around "Rambler": The keening fiddle and flat-picked guitar of "Country Honk" - which Rocks Off always preferred to the electric "Honky Tonk Women" - and the louche lifestyle of "Live With Me" where Keith Richards' bass (that's right) and Bobby Keys' Texas tenor sax take turns egging on Mick Jagger's hanky-panky. On the title track, Ian Stewart's gospel-flecked piano and Richards' woozy slide guitar alternately soften and sharpen Jagger's portraits of a lover as nurturer, nurse, parasite and semen receptacle. He always did have a way with the ladies. Then, after Mick slides his knife right down your throat, comes Keith's first-ever lead vocal on the tenderhearted, bedheaded "You Got the Silver," then the thuggish lyrics and snarling guitar of Scorsese favorite "Monkey Man." After all that, the album's three best-known songs - save "Let It Bleed," they're also its three longest - are just gravy. Good, thick gravy, but gravy nonetheless. That's why for us, Let It Bleed has always been the quintessential Stones album - the one that forms a near-perfect snapshot of the band as both sneering rock-star misogynists and studious roots-music scholars (as well as, on "Gimme Shelter," underrated '60s sociologists) - followed closely by Sticky Fingers and 1978's disco/punk counterpunch Some Girls. Put on "Respectable" the next time you're really pissed off and see if you don't immediately feel better.
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Exile on Main Street, on the other hand, has gone through long periods in our life where it's felt more like an album we were supposed to like more than we actually did. It's not the album that first made us fall in love with the Stones. That, believe it or not, was Voodoo Lounge, after one of our elders at the Austin Chronicle invited a wet-behind-the-ears Rocks Off to join the Chronicle crew at the band's November 1994 show at San Antonio's Alamodome - as good a reason as any other why we are sitting here writing this right now. But Exile is also the Stones album that has been hardest for us to shake. Through "Shake Your Hips," it introduced us to Louisiana swamp-pop soul man Slim Harpo. Besides a beautiful country song, "Sweet Virginia" also makes quite a crash course in recreational pharmacology. When Rocks Off still made mixtapes and had a Walkman, there were days (or even weeks) when we listened to nothing but "Ventilator Blues" and "Stop Breakin' Down" over and over and over again. Exile has framed some of our fondest memories, like when Rocks Off and a good friend from The Daily Texan were riding in the back seat of a car somewhere. It may have been in Austin, or New Orleans, but the album was turned up loud. During "Loving Cup," he turned to us, mouth agape, and wondered something to the effect of how Charlie Watts (let alone the rest of the band) kept his place during those incredibly elastic drum fills. We didn't know, and still don't, but to this day we try to match Watts on air drums, to the best of our limited ability, every time we hear it.
Whenever we hear "Tumblin' Dice," "Casino Boogie," and especially "Happy," Rocks Off can't help smirking that we share a birthday with Keith Richards, much to another member of that Chronicle crew's eternal annoyance. "Torn and Frayed" is as an accurate account of what it's really like backstage as we've ever heard, and over the years we've learned it applies equally well to writers. ("As long as the guitar plays/ Let it steal your heart away.") Exile even helped us get used to Houston - besides perhaps the Band's The Last Waltz, it's the album we've played the most on Under the Volcano's juke box. And then there's this: The person who invited Rocks Off to that Voodoo Lounge show in San Antonio also invited us to her old friend Lucinda Williams' wedding at Minneapolis' First Avenue last September. The first song Williams played as a brand-new bride, with husband Tom Overby accompanying her on guitar and vocals, was "Happy." We knew every word, and sang along with gusto. The expanded and remastered version of Exile on Main Street is in stores now.