Welcome to Part 2 of my song-for-song interpretation of Exile On Main St where I provide my explanations for each selection. I wanted to think about the album differently, as if its 18 songs were 18 individual ideas that influenced thousands of future bands in sometimes not so obvious ways. Instead of the Black Crowes, Pearl Jam, and White Stripes, we get You Am I, Wilco, and Maria McKee.Support the show
Theme Song: Mike Nicolai, “Trying To Get It Right” [Bandcamp]
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Today, I’d like to dive back in to my song-for-song interpretation of Exile On Main St. I specifically chose songs from the ‘90s and 2000s because I wanted a way to talk about the Stones and Exile without talking about the Stones and Exile. I wanted to think about the album differently, as if its 18 songs were 18 individual ideas that influenced thousands of future bands in obvious and less obvious ways. You know I’m more interested in the less obvious path and so that’s what we’re gonna discuss. I wanna dig a little deeper than the Black Crowes, Pearl Jam, and White Stripes. As a reminder, you can find this playlist on Spotify under Exiled From Main St. And that’s ST for Street, not fully spelled out. Exiled From Main St. OK, let’s do this.
Exiled From Main St
1 Uncle Joe's Big Ol' Driver - Red Room - 1994 - 3:12
1 Rocks Off 4:31
If you’re gonna do something as ludicrous as a track-by-track interpretation of Exile On Main St, you need to open with a fucking banger because “Rocks Off” is no joke. And that’s why I opened with Uncle Joe’s Big Ol’ Driver, a rock ‘n’ roll juggernaut for a few short years in the mid-‘90s, first in San Diego, where they were from, and then in Seattle where they moved in early ’95. That’s where I saw them a ton, usually at the Crocodile with the Fastbacks, Meices, or Overwhelming Colorfast. On “Red Room” you have Dave Jass on lead vocals, Andrew McKeag on backup vocals, and both of those guys are doing the 100 mph dual guitar weave, as George Vidaurri on bass and Paul Brewin on drums hold down the pocket. There's a brief downshift before the band barrels headlong to the finish.
2 Deadly Snakes - Born To Burn - 1999 - 2:28
2 Rip This Joint 2:22
Primitive, bluesy rock ‘n’ roll produced by Greg Cartwright, who’d actually join the Toronto band for their next album. Their energy and lo-fi approach is better than their songwriting, but Deadly Snakes have their moments and “Born To Burn” is probably the best. It opens Love Undone much like “Red Room” opens Uncle Joe’s: with the band’s hair on fire. Hence its role as the "Rip This Joint” of Exiled From Main St. Andre Ethier (still going by St. Clair) nails the vocal howl, we get pumping piano from Max Danger, a great looping bassline from James Sayce, and pocket horns from Matt Dog Carlson on trumpet and Carson Binks on tenor sax.
3 R.L. Burnside & Jon Spencer Blues Explosion - Poor Boy - 1996 - 3:38
3 Shake Your Hips 2:59
Recorded in a single afternoon in Holly Springs, Mississippi, A Ass Pocket Of Whiskey — not AN Ass Pocket Of Whiskey, A Ass Pocket Of Whiskey — is an awesome title and the album works because the Blues Explosion plays it straight. It's obvious they have a ton of respect for Burnside, so there’s no schtick. It probably helped that Kenny Brown, R.L.'s slide guitarist, was there as a liaison between the two camps. Whatever the case, R.L. sounds like he’s having fun. “Poor Boy” is one of my favorite songs on the record -- and the "Shake Your Hips" on my alt.Exile -- features Spencer’s in the red guitar fire over a bed of straight up, north Mississippi, electric boogie blues.
4 Gourds - Ants On The Melon - 2002 - 3:40
4 Casino Boogie 3:33
The Gourds aren't an obvious match for the Stones. Most people would compare them to The Band or Doug Sahm. But, they have their Stonesy moments. "Weather Woman" is one. Jimmy Smith wrote that for 2006’s Heavy Ornamentals. "Ants On The Melon" is another, which Kevin Russell wrote for 2002’s Cow Fish Fowl or Pig. Play "Casino Boogie" and then "Ants" and you'll hear a similar shuffling gait, a deep in the pocket swing, and most importantly, a proper mashed potatoes and butter to all the other ratio. Max Johnston plays a similar role in the arrangement to Bobby Keys, except on fiddle instead of sax, Kev is Stray Cat Jaggering on vocal, and Keith Langford on drums is the band's forever secret weapon, down in the engine room making the Gourdian knot move.
5 Cat Power - Aretha, Sing One For Me - 2008 - 3:13
5 Tumbling Dice 3:45
The first time I heard Cat Power do "Aretha, Sing One For Me" it totally reminded me of "Tumbling Dice," so this part of my alt.Exile was easy. The song is about a couple who get in a fight and break up. The boyfriend is going to see Aretha Franklin, so the girl wants Aretha to sing so good the boy changes his mind.
"Hey Aretha, sing one for me
Let him know our life's in misery
Will you sing a song that'll touch his heart
And make him sorry we are apart"
Jim White's massive drums start with a beat so far back I think they're technically from the previous song. A guitar enters, panned left, also behind the beat and syncopating with White. That's the great Teenie Hodges, who played on the George Jackson original (1972). By the way, Willie Mitchell produced that one. Gregg Foreman (Delta 72) then comes in with some sweet organ fill over the top and centered in the mix. Erik Paparazzi subtly swoops in on bass and, he too, is centered. By the time Chan Marshall's sultry voice enters following a White press roll, we're all about fever in the funkhouse now. Fun fact: Marshall’s guitarist on the rest of the album – and he might be lower in the mix here – is Judah Bauer from the Blues Explosion.
George Jackson was asked about this cover shortly after the release of Jukebox and he had a fantastic response.
“It's got a really different feel from my version. She stuck to the basic melody of the song that I recorded, but I noticed that she added a Bonnie Raitt-style guitar lick. On my version, I mostly used the piano for the melody and the solos, but she uses the guitar, which I thought was really interesting. I'm thrilled she decided to cover it. I've always liked that song, but I think it's great that she liked it enough to do it herself.”
--George Jackson to Andy Tennille, SF Weekly, April 9, 2008
6 Wilco w/Billy Bragg - California Stars (Conan O'Brien) - 1998 - 4:58
6 Sweet Virginia 4:27
"California Stars" as a "Sweet Virginia" sub was a no brainer. And while there are hundreds of live versions available, on top of the Mermaid Avenue original, the one I chose as my favorite was recorded for Conan O’Brien on September 30, 1998. I think it’s got the right balance of moxie, sass, and dare I say verve? Jay Bennett on guitar, Leroy Bach on piano, John Stirratt and Ken Coomer hold down the pocket, and Billy Bragg himself shows up about halfway through to sing co-lead with Jeff Tweedy.
7 Uncle Tupelo & Doug Sahm - Give Back The Key To My Heart - 1993 - 3:26
7 Torn And Frayed 4:17
Obviously, going from Wilco to Uncle Tupelo is fun, given the lineage between the two bands. But, “Sweet Virginia” into “Torn And Frayed” is the rootsiest back to back in the Stones catalog. Those songs require the big guns. “Give Back The Key To My Heart” and “Torn And Frayed” work together because they’re both three-chord country strummers about the downside of drug dependency.
"Well, you got a friend named cocaine
And to me he is to blame
He has drained life from your face
He has taken my place"
While Jagger sings:
"Joe's got a cough, sounds kind of rough
Yeah, and the codeine to fix it
Doctor prescribes drug store supplies
Who's gonna help him to kick it?"
Max Johnston’s fiddle plays a role in the arrangement similar to Al Perkins’ pedal steel. That’s two songs now with Max in a feature role. I’m beginning to think he’s pretty good.
8 Dexateens - Own Thing - 2006 - 1:34
8 Sweet Black Angel 2:54
I’m proud of myself for remembering this Dexateens track. “Own Thing” is the “Sweet Black Angel” of Exiled From Main St, a perfect match in basic structure and charming lo-fi-ness. Where the Dexateens differ significantly is their lyrics are not an embarrassing relic of blackface minstrelsy. Even worse was that an entire generation of gaslighting white dudes insisted, “IT'S NOT RACIST! IT'S AN IRONIC TRIBUTE TO ANGELA DAVIS!” (generation caplock)
One of the things I'm trying to impart with Don't Call It Nothing is that the best bands of the 1990s (or 2000s) often IMPROVED what came before. The Dexateens are from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where matters of race aren't a fun little toy that you wind up and it quasi-ironically sings, "Mammy." Actual black people died because actual white people were -- and some still are -- paranoid sadistic fascists. The members of The Dexateens grew up keenly aware of this and existed in opposition to it, which is why instead of making excuses for adults who should know better, you should be rewarding real-ass, red dirt, southern punk 'n' rollers like the Dexateens. In fact, drummer Craig Pickering was one of my students at UA. Sweet Dog!
I love the arrangement of “Own Thing” because it’s stripped down. In fact, it’s just a John Smith demo. He’s playing acoustic guitar, he’s singing lead, he’s also singing harmony with himself, and he adds that steel-sounding slide guitar part. The drums that you hear would normally be Sweet Dog but are, in fact, (producer/engineer) Dave Barbe. If you're a Drive-By Truckers fan and somehow haven't heard the Dexateens, you need to take care of that post haste. This is where the Truckers got bassist Matt Patton and Hardwire Healing, the album containing "Own Thing," was produced and mixed by David Barbe and Patterson Hood.
9 Jayhawks - Waiting For The Sun - 1992 - 4:20
9 Loving Cup 4:25
I don’t really need to go into detail on the greatness of The Jayhawks because I just did that in Episode 17. It’s well established. But, I brought them into alt.Exile because I love how “Waiting For The Sun” and “Loving Cup” are arranged around piano. I get that “Sun” was written on guitar and features predictably excellent Gary Louris lead work, but take away the piano and the song loses a good deal of its punch. The cool thing about Nicky Hopkins playing piano for the Stones and Benmont Tench playing piano for the Jayhawks is that Tench was the logical successor to Hopkins in terms of rock ‘n’ roll piano. He’s obviously best known as a Heartbreaker, but Tench did a ton of studio work in the ‘90s. Leaving aside Petty because he’s a given, check out this list of records on which he plays. And keep in mind this isn’t even close to complete. This is just the stuff I like.
1990 - Replacements - All Shook Down
1990 - Indigo Girls - Nomads Indians Saints
1991 - Dramarama - Vinyl
1991 - Elvis Costello - Mighty Like A Rose
1992 - Cracker - Cracker
1992 - Thelonious Monster - Beautiful Mess - The song I featured in Episode 16, “Body And Soul,” had Tench playing organ on the studio recording.
1992 - Jayhawks - Hollywood Town Hall
1992 - Lucinda Williams - Sweet Old World
1993 - Maria McKee - You Gotta Sin To Get Saved
1993 - Bash & Pop - Friday Night Is Killing Me
1995 - Jayhawks - Tomorrow The Green Grass
1996 - Johnny Cash – Unchained (OK, this is kind of a Petty and The Heartbreakers record)
1996 - Screaming Trees - Dust
1998 - Mike Ireland & Holler - Learning How To Live
Not a bad resume.
10 Bash & Pop - He Means It - 1993 - 3:32
10 Happy 3:04
Bash & Pop was Tommy Stinson’s band following the breakup of the Mats and their 1993 debut, Friday Night Is Killing Me, is good, it’s probably not great. But, “He Means It,” “Loose Ends,” “First Steps,” and “Tiny Pieces” are perfect little rock ‘n’ roll gems and “Fast And Hard” is Replacements by way of the Faces. I put "He Means It" in the "Happy" slot on my alt.Exile partly because it's legitimately Stonesy and partly in homage to the famous Jim Dickinson quote. Dickinson, who produced “Brown Sugar,” “You Gotta Move,” and "Wild Horses" for the Stones and Pleased To Meet Me for the Mats, once said:
"I want to say this about Tommy. Some people say that Keith Richards is the embodiment of rock ‘n roll. Well, I know ‘em both, and I say it’s Tommy Stinson. Keith is a cowboy, he goes back to Gene Autry. Tommy, he goes back to Johnny Thunders. Tommy Stinson is rock ‘n roll.”
There you go, Tommy. No pressure living up to that [laughs].
11 You Am I - Junk - 1998 - 2:39
11 Turd On The Run 2:36
You can’t have a playlist inspired by Exile On Main St and not invite You Am I. I actually could’ve had them in about 6-7 different slots, but they’re perfect on “Junk.” This is Peak You Am I. Swaggering fuck rock with bigtime guitar riffs and a horn section. Love the sequence from 1:55-2:20, which starts with a sweet Andy Kent bass riff, Stooges-esque handclaps and horn stabs, and then at 2:06 Rogers grinds out a lead under the “junk junk junk” chanting.
12 Jack O'Fire - Green Onions - 1993 - 2:45
12 Ventilator Blues 3:24
This is one of my favorite Exile comps because both “Green Onions” and “Ventilator Blues” work around hypnotic circular riffs. It’s kin to the John Lee Hooker, Slim Harpo, and R.L. Burnside-style drone boogie, but kind of a wild hair offshoot. I love how Walter Daniels (harp) and Tim Kerr (guitar) wrestle for control of the song as Pepper Wilson (organ), Dean Gunderson (standup bass), and Josh Larue (drums) hold down a loose, funky pocket. That it sounds like it’s about to come off the rails at anytime, but doesn’t, is rock ‘n’ roll.
13 Bad Livers - Puke Grub - 1994 - 3:14
13 I Just Want To See His Face 2:52
This might be my favorite pairing just because “Face” is so damn hard to mirror. Part of its structural genius is that it doesn’t really make any sense on Exile itself. It SHOULD be an outtake. So, including it is punk as fuck and I needed a song to match. Wouldn’t you know it? The Bad Livers were the mensches for the job. Danny Barnes plucks banjo and sounds like he’s singing through a CB radio as Mark Rubin blows tuba and Ralph White saws on fiddle in the back of the arrangement, giving the song a strange kind of depth. Appropriately, “Puke Grub” doesn’t end so much as dissolve, fading out with a couple of audio clips taken from TV.
14 Sister Double Happiness - Dark Heart - 1991 - 5:06
14 Let It Loose 5:16
Raise your hand if you think Sister Double Happiness was one of the most underrated bands of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. I see a lot of hands raised. I should see more. Lead singer, songwriter, and harmonica player, Gary Floyd (formerly of The Dicks), was like a fully realized, apex version of Janis Joplin, a big-voiced, blues rocking Texan who relocated to San Francisco from Austin. However, Floyd wasn’t just a shouter. He was a supple-voiced crooner who could go big or small as needed. Which is good because "Let It Loose" is one of Jagger's best vocals and any comp worth a damn needs a singer with pipes. “Dark Heart” is an anti-war power ballad featuring Floyd on harmonica, Lynn Perko doubling on piano, and Ben Cohen playing either mandolin or an acoustic capoed high on the neck, as well as unleashing a Mick Taylor-esque electric guitar solo towards the end of the song.
15 Blue Mountain – Sleepin’ In My Shoes - 1999/2008 - 2:45
15 All Down The Line 3:49
Similar to Cat Power in that the first time I heard “Sleepin’ In My Shoes” I thought it sounded like “All Down The Line.” We got Cary Hudson on lead vocals and big dog slide guitar, Laurie Stirratt on bass and harmony vocal, George Sheldon on piano, Frank Coutch on drums, and Jim Spake pulling double duty on tenor and bari sax. I wanna note that the version on Spotify from Omnibus came out in 2008 when the band briefly reunited and re-recorded new versions of their older songs as a way to reclaim their legacy and maybe, you know, make a little money. And while I’d prefer “Sleepin’” with the horns, I do like on Omnibus how Cary calls out Frank and George like he’s Bob freakin Wills. It’s really good.
16 Damnations - Happy Woman Blues - 1997 - 3:12
16 Stop Breaking Down 4:34
This was another that didn’t take long to figure out. Sweet Gary Newcomb’s pedal steel is to the Damnations as Mick Taylor’s slide is to the Stones. And while Jagger’s blackfacey mushmouth is my least favorite part of the Stones, his harp playing on “Stop Breaking Down” is fucking awesome. Like both Little Walter and Walter Daniels gotta tip the cap to Mick. Similarly, “Happy Woman Blues” features one of my favorite Rob Bernard solos in his entire discography, twelves bars of slash and burn from :53-1:16. Newcomb actually adds his own tilt-a-whirl solo from 2:00-2:26.
This song is also kind of a built-in Easter egg because though it’s a cover of Lucinda Williams, Lu was basically covering Muddy Waters’ “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” which the Stones covered in 1964 while at Chess Studios in Chicago. And obviously, their name comes from Muddy Waters. So, many levels.
17 Maria McKee - Why Wasn't I More Grateful - 1993 - 5:05
17 Shine A Light 4:14
Like “Let It Loose,” “Shine A Light” needs a showstopper, someone who can take us to church. I’d say Maria McKee fits the bill. “Why Wasn’t I More Grateful” is one of her greatest vocals and I love this arrangement. Most everything is center in the mix. Maria, Marvin Etzioni on bass and Don Heffington on drums (aka the original Lone Justice rhythm section), Ben Tench is on gospel piano and organ waft, and Edna Wright, Julia Waters, and Maxine Waters are on glorious backup vocals. Again, all of that is center in the mix, but the guitars and horns are set off in each channel. It gives the arrangement an extra level of syncopation, a little wiggle. It gives you an idea how much Gary Louris was trusted that he’s all alone in the right channel delivering surgical strike lead guitar. So fucking good. Meanwhile, in the left channel are Wayne Jackson on trumpet and Andrew Love on tenor sax (aka the Memphis Horns), there’s a second electric guitar, essentially serving as a third horn, and finally, there’s a single acoustic guitar way back in the mix. It’s always there, always in the left channel. The romantic in me wants that acoustic guitar to be Mark Olson, but it very easily could be Maria herself.
18 Marah - Head On - 1998 - 2:51
18 Soul Survivor 3:49
It takes about 30 seconds for “Head On” to reveal itself as a doppleganger for “Soul Survivor,” but when it does there’s no let up. Like You Am I, Marah feels ideally suited for any kind of mid-‘70s Stones retrospect. The sense of recklessness, the swagger, “Head On” sounds like a band careening toward the edge of a cliff, but never losing control. It’s got that Mummers parade, New Orleans second-line polyrhythm, Dave Bielanko sings like another drum, there’s heavy brass playing guitar riffs, pounding piano in the left channel, oh, here comes a sweet Chuck Berry guitar lead (thanks Serge!), and finally, some subtle ooh aah backing vocals towards the end of the song. It’s rock and fucking roll in less than three minutes. That’s how it’s done.
**Years Covered: 1991-2008**
On the transcription page for this podcast, I’ll list each of the songs chronologically because I think it’s kind of interesting to look at the playlist that way. FYI, the earliest track was from 1991 and that was Sister Double Happiness. The latest was from 2008 and that was Cat Power, as well as Blue Mountain. If you knew nothing about 1990s and 2000s rock ‘n’ roll, you could do a whole lot worse than start here.
1991 - Sister Double Happiness - Dark Heart
1992 - Jayhawks - Waiting For The Sun
1993 - Uncle Tupelo & Doug Sahm - Give Back The Key To My Heart
1993 - Bash & Pop - He Means It
1993 - Jack O'Fire - Green Onions
1993 - Maria McKee - Why Wasn't I More Grateful
1994 - Uncle Joe's Big Ol' Driver - Red Room
1994 - Bad Livers - Puke Grub
1996 - R.L. Burnside & Jon Spencer Blues Explosion - Poor Boy
1997 - Damnations - Happy Woman Blues
1998 - Wilco w/Billy Bragg - California Stars (Conan O'Brien)
1998 - You Am I - Junk
1998 - Marah - Head On
1999 - Deadly Snakes - Born To Burn
1999/2008 - Blue Mountain - Sleeping In My Shoes (podcast has ‘99, Spotify playlist has ‘08)
2002 - Gourds - Ants On The Melon
2006 - Dexateens - Own Thing
2008 - Cat Power - Aretha, Sing One For Me
**Most Popular Year**
1993 - 4
1998 - 3
I think it’s worth mentioning that the two most popular years on the playlist were 1993, which had four selections, and 1998, which had three. That could be coincidence, just happened to be randomly selected. But, is it possible that this overrepresentation speaks to the depth of those years? This might be something I explore more in the future. Just putting it out there.
Anyway, please visit the Don’t Call It Nothing Facebook page and website, dontcallitnothing.squarespace.com. PayPal and Venmo firstname.lastname@example.org. Like, comment, tell yo mama, and tell a friend. Talk to ya next time!