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.

Bill MacKay – Fountain Fire (Drag City)

cover_1544126457352464Based on the sounds contained on Chicago-based avant-folkie Bill MacKay’s latest album Fountain Fire, it seems apparent he’s been racking up the miles both literally and figuratively.   It’s a dusty gem of an album that slowly reveals its treasures with repeated listening, and feels like a sprawling road trip across a new weird America with a transatlantic flight or two thrown in for good measure.

Album opener “Pre-California,” sets the table in a cinematic fashion, allowing a widescreen view of MacKay’s 6-string sprawl replete with walls of rumbling, and sliding guitars which evoke images of tectonic shifts, and primordial volcanic ooze.  It’s a mostly instrumental set, but the few tracks which utilize vocals are stunners; such as the Janschian English folk moves displayed on “Birds of May.”   It’s a timeless sounding set that hums with a crackling kinetic energy, even in its quieter and more contemplative moments.  Closing with the urgent and apocalyptic sounding “Dragon Country,” MacKay seems to evoke the sound of darkness descending with its nervy acoustic finger picking, walls of tremolo, and sneaky electric guitar lines.  Fountain Fire is an album that evokes powerful emotions and imagery almost entirely via MacKay’s masterful guitar work.  Just hop in the van, and let him do all the driving; it’s a trip worth taking.

Order the album via Drag City.

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.

Michael Chapman – True North (Paradise of Bachelors)

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True North the latest album from living legend amongst us Michael Chapman feels like a collection of songs that were written in a series of motel rooms, and not the kind of places you would like to stay in unless you absolutely had to.  They are the kind of lodgings that you imagine have the shades perpetually drawn, are strewn with empty bottles of cheap booze, and have ashtrays that are overflowing with cigarette butts.

It’s a record that sounds populated by ghosts and regret with the 78 year old Chapman ruminating on all of fate’s cruel twists, and roads not taken.  A dark and vital collection of songs that boast a masterfully spare production courtesy of Steve Gunn.  Most of the time, it’s just Chapman’s time worn voice accompanied by his beautifully down-tuned acoustic guitar ringing clear as a bell against oblivion.  It’s stripped bare with just the right amount of accompaniment; some of the best of it coming from the pedal steel of BJ Cole whose playing adds a haunting element to the proceedings, cellist Sarah Smout’s ethereal strings, and Bridget St John’s occasional vocal turns which shine especially on “Full Bottle, Empty Heart.”

The lyrics on True North are direct, and they cut deep. Chapman sounds like a man who doesn’t have the time for the bullshit anymore, and seems painfully aware of the clock running out.  It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.

Buy the album from Paradise of Bachelors.