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.

Big Star – Live On WLIR (Omnivore Recordings)

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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.