Alex Chilton – Songs From Robin Hood Lane (Bar/None)

AChiltonRobinmini259For 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.

Our Alarm Clock – Time Flies (No Label)

326369Time Flies is the latest excursion from Ben Rosenbach’s one-man electronic post-rock project Our Alarm Clock.  Now a Dad in his thirties, he spent most of his formative musical years playing in playing in Christian rock bands.  His latest is a collection on which the worship rock alumni takes us through a secular and mostly wordless song cycle filled with deep pockets of ambient, pop, and post-rock; all of which are all filtered through his spiritually honed inner lens.

It’s an odd juxtaposition to have a set of songs be so polished, yet feel so personal.  While listening, you sometimes feel like he invited you over to audition some of the songs he cooked up in his home studio the night before or while his kid was taking a nap.  The album ebbs and flows in intensity, and moods oftentimes within the same track.  Album highlight “A Sealed Up Secret Wish” starts with minimal backwards-tracked guitars, and slowly builds in intensity until it has morphed into something resembling Godspeed You! Black Emperor, if you could imagine them dressed in their Sunday best, and sporting fresh haircuts.  While on vocal tracks such as “Pictures,” the artist sounds like he’s trying his damndest to work out his existential crises, and unresolved feelings in what sounds like real time.

Time Flies is an album that seems to work best, when Rosenbach allows the listener to glimpse a little more of the man behind the machine, such as on album closer, “Sunrise” which finds him looking up, still seeking the answers, and inviting us to do the same.  While not every track or experiment presented here always works, there’s absolutely no doubt that there’s a real guy at the heart of it trying to get to the bottom of it all through his music.  The world around us would probably be a better place, if more us cast our eyes skyward every once in a while and followed suit.

Buy the album direct from the artist.

Alex Chilton – From Memphis to New Orleans (Bar/None)

AlexChlton+Memphis+miniBRNLP258There’s a chasm of time, sobriety, and emotional distance that separates From Memphis to New Orleans one of Bar None’s latest Alex Chilton compilations from what some consider his most vital work both with Big Star, and his equally ground breaking art-damaged punk informed late’s 1970’s solo work.  That’s not to say there isn’t plenty to love on here, but you might just have to open your mind a bit to appreciate what’s being presented here.  My introduction to this era of Alex was via the Rhino Compilation 19 Years: A Collection back when I was in college.  At first, I just didn’t get it all.  How did the wounded brilliant soul behind the emotional chaos of Big Star’s 3rd morph into the guy delivering the tongue in cheek sleaziness of “Take It Off” by the end of the collection?  I was mystified, and more than a little non-plussed at first.  Which probably would have delighted Alex to no end.  I think that’s a lot of fans’ initial reaction to this stuff who come into this era of Alex’s work via Big Star fandom.

The context goes something like this.  By 1981, Chilton was bottoming out, the balance between order and chaos Chilton seemed to dangerously court following the implosion of Big Star had tipped too much towards the latter.  Legend has it that over Christmas of that year, a cold prompted him to stop drinking for a few days.  Once he realized how much better he felt, a decision was made to stay sober.  Looking to escape some of the negative pull of his hometown associates, he relocated to take his chances in the Big Easy.  Taking a few years off from music, he washed dishes, took a gig as a tree surgeon, and played in local cover bands.

From Memphis to New Orleans culls the best from Chilton’s 1980’s solo output, once he decided to re-emerge from his self-imposed musical exile thanks in part to the encouragement of some high profile admirers like R.E.M. and The Replacements. There was also that Bangles cover of “September Girls” that surely put a few bucks in his pocket.  The Alex Chilton that emerges on these recordings is a more relaxed, and confident artist who is more willing to embrace a wider range of styles (a skill he probably honed putting in all those hours playing endless covers in local honky tonks) backed by a skillful and sympathetic band which included bassist René Coman, and drummer Doug Garrison.  Chilton shows off this versatility in his choices of oddball cover tunes which run the gamut from the soulful reading of “B-A-B-Y” to the rockabilly rave-up of “Lonely Weekends,” the faux Beach Boys pastiche of “Little GTO,” and the Brill Building assembly line of pop of “Let Me Get Close To You.”  Chilton’s originals now spoke more directly than his more impressionistic lyrical work with Big Star, although he retained a little of the subversive edge he sharpened in the late ’70’s; take for example his at times wince inducing take on the 1980’s AIDS epidemic, “No Sex,” or his takedown of hypocritical televangelists on “Guantanamerika.”  Elsewhere he deflated any myths about the perception of his rock star status on “Underclass.”

Everything presented on here has a groove, and is about as far away from the Power Pop of Big Star as imaginable.  If anything, the music presented here harkens back to his earlier work with The Box Tops.  There’s even a cover of “Nobody’s Fool” which was written by his one time Box Top vocal coach and producer Dan Penn.

This collection is one that in many ways feels like Alex Chilton is letting you flip through his thrift scored box of 45’s, while taking you for a drive down some dusty forgotten back roads in his ’73 Buick LeSabre. It took me a little bit to figure it out but sometimes, it’s more about the journey than the destination.

Order From Memphis to New Orleans from Bar None.

Drunken Prayer – Cordelia Elsewhere (Deer Lodge Records)

Drunken Prayer cvr reCordelia Elsewhere is the fifth album from Drunken Prayer, which is the nom de plum of stalwart Freakwater guitarist Morgan Geer. It plays like a collection of aural snapshots gathered from a life spent on the road. “I hate what they did to my town, so I moved to another town.”  Geer sings on the ragged and rockin’ “Cordelia.”  It appears that he’s always been a traveler, a trend that began as he followed his folk singer mom around the country on tour as a youth.

The music presented on Cordelia Elsewhere is a heady, and slightly eccentric stew of American styles from the past century or so.  From the seemingly apocalyptic and mysterious lyrics that populate the neo-country blues of “Fifty Foot Locust” to the easygoing soulful groove of “Ni Ni Neo,” a lot of ground is covered over the album’s ten songs.  While the mournful pedal steel, and modern outlaw country slant of “Rubble and Dust” show an artist who’s not afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve when it counts.

It seems like Geer’s time clocking up the miles has instilled in him a deep knowledge and understanding of what makes a diverse collection of songs hang together in a way to create a whole greater than its parts; while an expert mixing job by Mitch Easter (Let’s Active, R.E.M.) gives the music presented on Cordelia Elsewhere the proper depth and fidelity.  Just because it’s science doesn’t mean that it’s not beautiful.

Order Drunken Prayer direct from the artist.

R. Stevie Moore – Afterlife (Bar/None)

Curmudgeonly Godfather of DIY, R. Stevie Moore has been responsible for springing hundreds of self-released albums on the unsuspecting public for over the past 50 years.  Taking the universal sounds of The Beatles, early Zappa, The Beach Boys, and Todd Rundgren (to name just a few), he excels at shaping these influences into his own unique brand of outsider pop that exists in a universe all its own.

His latest album for Hoboken label Bar/None, Afterlife, is somewhat of a different affair than the usual release slated for the R. Stevie Moore Cassette Club.  Taking a page from one of his heroes Lou Reed, who left The Velvet Underground an “album loaded with hits,” prior to his riding off into the sun.  R. Stevie’s latest platter is all killer, and no filler. This is the result of cherry picking some of the best of his home-recorded ditties from the past couple of decades, and re-recording them to give them a pro-sounding high fidelity sheen.  The hat trick here is that he managed to do it without sacrificing all of the idiosyncrasies that make his work endearing to so many.  It probably didn’t hurt that he brought the big guns out for this one too, gathering a crew that includes sidemen such as Ariel Pink, Jason Falkner, Lane Steinberg, and producer Irwin Chusid to help him realize his vision for the record.

Unlike many of the other compilations of his work that have been released over the years, label hype seems to indicate this one might just be his sayonara to music.  I’m not sure that neither he nor I believe that be true.  Regardless if that’s the case or not, Afterlife works equally well as a primer to his peculiar brand of skewed song-craft or an epitaph for a legend.  Silver lining here is that whether this is the end or not, there’s plenty more where this came from just waiting to be discovered thanks to his vast body of work.  So, what are you waiting for?  The rabbit hole awaits.

Order Afterlife from Bar None.

Sparrow Steeple – Tin Top Sorcerer (Trouble In Mind)

cover_1549567443798140Sparrow Steeple’s Tin Top Sorcerer is the group’s debut for best label Trouble In Mind, and it’s a tight collection of some real gone Philadelphia-style psychedelic garage rock stompers.  The kind they don’t really make anymore.  You can almost hear the cans of watery domestic ales popping between takes, and picture the ramshackle recording set up these guys committed these whoppers to tape on.  These guys have the credentials that are needed to pull this kind of stuff off, as four members of the band used to be part of the legendary 1990’s Siltbreezers known as The Strapping Fieldhands.

Boasting plenty of acid-fried guitar solos and avant folk trickery, the best stuff on here elicits the same kind of joy that a clutch of obscure 45s you happened to discover in your cool Uncle’s attic might.  Finding particular favor with this writer is the twisted horror rock of “Wolfman of Mayberry” which would be sure to even bring a smile to Roky Erickson’s face.  Elsewhere the surreal wordplay, and Revolver-like backwards guitar swirls of “Stabbing Wizards” makes me jones for some prime early ’90’s era GBV with a healthy side of Brother JT.  If you’re feeling like a retronaut out looking for some cheap thrills and plenty to love, this is definitely the platter for you.

Buy the album from Trouble In Mind.

StumpWater – Motel In Saginaw (Drag City / Galactic Zoo Disk)

Stumpwater_MotelInSaginaw_CoverMotel In Saginaw from the heretofore-unknown group StumpWater is another winning archival discovery from the trusted ears of the Drag City label which is being reissued for the first time in conjunction with Galactic Zoo Disk.  Originally self-released in 1973, the amazingly still-active Aurora, Illinois based group’s unearthed album is a denim clad sepia toned slice of conceptual folk rock. The whole damn thing is so professional sounding and spot on, that you might even find yourself checking the record’s label for a steamboat; if you know what I mean.

The album is based around a group of characters that populate the small town hotel that gives the record its name. Using it as a conceptual framework on which the group hangs the occupants’ sad and desperate tales of loneliness. Sound wise; it’s all beautiful shimmering minor key strumming and tight vocal harmonies that would probably even impress the Croz himself.  The writing is pointed, and mostly devastating character sketches that don’t let anyone off easy.  “Romantic Courtship Turns Into Boring Marriage Blues,” unflinchingly details the decay of a relationship; the writing boasts an approach, and a dark humor which is very similar to another one of the era’s new Dylans, Loudon Wainwright III.  Elsewhere, the album deals with death, “Now That He’s Passed Away,” isolation “The Hermit,” and the addiction “Tired Man” with the same type of direct songwriting precision and skill.

Motel In Saginaw sits nicely alongside such other real people loner folk epics such as label mate Gary Higgins’ Red Hash and David Kauffman and Eric Caboor’s Songs from Suicide Bridge.  Much like the aforementioned albums, the record’s bleak subject matter may be a bit too heavy for some to take.  But for those that hang in there though the dark roads the group takes you down, there’s two rays of light that break through the existential gloom that hangs over that Saginaw motel in the form of the album’s two closing tracks; first there’s the wonderfully disarming title track which is love song in the truest sense of the word, and then the stunning album closer “A Thousand Voices.”  These final two songs speak to finding love and salvation in others in order to break out of the confines of one’s own self-imposed prisons.  The stories this album tells are universal; ones that are able to speak to the heart of the listener as much today as they would have in 1973.  For those who aren’t afraid to go a little dark, it’s check in time.

Order the album via Drag City.