For a long time, whenever someone brought up the term or referred to The Great American Songbook, my eyes would roll a bit. Rightfully or not, it conjured images of a crooning Rod Stewart delivering bland covers of American popular songs and jazz standards from yesteryear. Having raised myself on scrappy indie rock, The Velvet Underground, and a little bit of punk in high school, this wasn’t the kind of music that spoke to me in my teenage and early college years. So, when I began to discover the music of Big Star and Alex Chilton, the kind of cool jazz presented on Songs From Robin Hood Lane was pretty far off my radar and frame of reference. Although, I would eventually come around (at least a little).
I first became familiar with the majority of songs collected here when they were presented on the album Clichés which was originally released in 1993. By the time I got around to it, it was probably sometime in the early aughts. I ordered it from eBay, and I recall it only cost me a few bucks. The CD cover seemed a little over saturated with color, and featured a photo of a slightly disheveled looking Alex sporting a pair of shades. The whole presentation just seemed sort of odd. Especially when I put it on, and was presented with a short, and spare collection of acoustic covers with a decidedly jazz oriented feel. It sounded like it could have been committed to tape in a single evening. At a time when Chilton could’ve skated on the goodwill, and surging popularity of a certain legendary power pop band, the always contrarian Alex threw his listeners another curve ball instead.
Songs From Robin Hood Lane uses the location mentioned in it’s title as a jump off point for it’s focus. The same way the labels’ other recent geographically themed collection From Memphis To New Orleans spends it’s time documenting the best of Chilton’s recordings from the 1980’s once he relocated to the Big Easy. The Robin Hood Lane that’s being referred to here is the street where Alex spent his early childhood. It was here that Chilton began exploring his musician father Sidney’s record collection which included the key discovery of Chet Baker Sings which introduced the young Chilton to an artist who would prove to be a big influence on his vocal stylings.
This new compilation features five songs from Clichés while augmenting it with some previously released and unreleased songs which feature the same jazz oriented style and approach. Some of the additional tracks were cut for a Chet Baker tribute Medium Cool which was recorded with classically trained bassist Ron Miller in 1991, and an additional 1993 session also recorded with Miller.
So, the question here is does it work? Well, if you like your Chilton in crooner mode, then there are certainly some delights to be had on here. The new sequence also makes the presentation feel more like a complete album due to the greater variety of instrumentation. It’s also hard to deny the effectiveness of his readings of “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” and the timelessness of “Let’s Get Lost.” Some of the covers fall a little flat for me due to personal preferences for the source material such as his reading of “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying.” The main takeaway here is Alex’s lack of pretension and the sincerity in his commitment to interpreting the material makes it worth hearing. Best of all, even when he’s flipping the through the worn and yellowed pages of that old American Songbook, his delivery makes the whole thing glow with all the coolness of a flame that burns blue. Take that Rod!
Order Songs From Robin Hood Lane from Bar None.