Alex Chilton – It Isn’t Always That Easy 7” (Be With Records)

By 1969 Alex Chilton has most likely sensed the looming demise of his group The Box Tops, and was looking for a way out. He was only 16 years old in 1967 when he scored the biggest hit of his entire career with “The Letter,” thanks in no small part to his growling gravel voiced singing. But after two years of almost non-stop touring and recording sessions, the wheels were definitely starting to come off the bus.

The two songs captured on this single (wrapped inside a sleeve featuring a candid photo of Alex catching a nap on the same studio floor he cut these demos on nine years later) capture the artist in transition between the soulful crooning of The Box Tops and the Anglophile informed sound of the tragically doomed Big Star. The demos presented on here were recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis with engineer Terry Manning whom Chilton befriended while working on Box Tops recordings there. One of the most striking things about these tunes is that these are probably some of the earliest recordings that capture Alex singing using his natural tenor voice that he would later utilize to great effect in Big Star. “It Isn’t Always That Easy,” is a dark slice of downer folk which reflects the isolation of constantly being on the road and having his musical vision stifled by producers looking for the next big hit. The flip side by contrast is a way more optimistic piano driven number that still has one foot in the some of his soon to be prior group’s sunny pop impulses. While not probably the best place for neophytes to jump in, it’s just simply a pleasure to hear some unheard (at least, to these ears) Alex sides on vinyl for the first time, especially from so early on his career in a period when the possibilities of where the artist would follow his muse were still wide open.  By the end of the sixties, Alex would be free again to find a new illusion.  Welcome to the future.

Order the 7″ via Be With Records.

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.

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.

Big Star – Live On WLIR (Omnivore Recordings)

big star - live ot wlir ov-321

It’s 1974, the Memphis group known as Big Star are holed up in Ultrasonic Studios in New York, and they’re starving.  As then bassist John Lightman explains, “…we were all very tired and hungry. we had low blood sugar. They wouldn’t let us leave to get food because they thought we wouldn’t be back in time for the broadcast.”  This was a band looking for more than just a quick bite; they were striving for the chance to finally live up to their name.  It wouldn’t happen the way they hoped it would, but there was no way they could have known that then.

Live On WLIR is Omnivore’s reissue of Big Star’s incendiary 1974 live in the studio performance for New York’s WLIR-FM.  It’s one of the few documents we have of the Alex Chilton led group performing in the actual decade in which they created their slim but still influential body of work.  If you’re a neophyte to Big Star, and the whole Bell/Chilton saga, then in all honesty this release isn’t probably the best entry point.  Just go buy a used copy of the #1 Record/ Radio City two-fer on CD, or some reasonably priced reissues.  Get back to me whenever you’re ready.  For those still hanging around, let’s get down to the nitty gritty.

It’s not the first time this set has seen the light of day, for that see Rykodisc’s 1992 release Live.  The EQ’ing and mastering is a little different for this edition, and in all honesty both versions sound good.  Though to these ears, this new one sounds a little more geared to accentuate the rock.  I’ll save the entire deep dive A/Bing comparisons between the two for some geek on The Steve Hoffman forums.  What will be important for most is to finally have this set readily available on vinyl.

The lineup on here is a power trio featuring Chilton doing all the rhythm and lead guitar work (which is honestly a joy to hear), with then fresh recruit John Lightman on bass, and the ever reliable Jody Stephens on drums. Sorely missed on this set are founding members Chris Bell, and Andy Hummel.  What’s good on here though is really great.  Since the set was recorded live to two-track, it presents the band sounding lean, mean, and with absolutely no frills.  There are even some technical hiccups as the sound guy mixes the band’s performance as it goes, which if you ask me only adds the audio vérité of the proceedings.  You will also get a delightfully thorny, and at times awkward interview between Chilton, and DJ Jim Cameron, which is classic Alex.  There’s also a nice acoustic performance in the middle, which is heartrending stuff.

The timing on when this set was captured is probably what’s most important.  In just a few months, Big Star would collapse into a black hole of sullen entropy that would result in the sessions for their brilliant third and final LP.  After that, Chilton and Stephens would split.  Despite the latter day reunions of the group, this is one of the few chances you have to hear Chilton fully committed to playing these songs with an unbridled enthusiasm, as opposed to the levels of detachment that he would approach most of these songs with in later years.  Despite of all of his grumbling during the interview about how scummy it is being on the road or low album sales; it doesn’t sound like the dream of Big Star had completely died for him yet.  Not at least on that day in 1974, and sometimes timing is everything.

Order Live On WLIR via Omnivore Recordings.