Here are a couple of “reissues” from our favorite Big Star, ALEX CHILTON. Both From Memphis to New Orleans and Songs from Robin Hood Lane are compilations of previously released Chilton material, chosen thematically or chronologically to fit together nicely. It’s an interesting way to do it – take the best tracks of an era, for instance – and create one superior compilation, instead of reissue the entire albums or EPs themselves. Especially since Chilton’s discography is a little spotty during his solo years, this may be the best way to find the choice chunks of his solo stuff.
From Memphis to New Orleans pulls primarily from Alex’s mid-to-late 1980s releases Feudalist Tarts, No Sex and Black List. Those first two came out in the States on now defunct Big Time Records, and they were a comeback of sorts for Chilton. Buoyed by some great R&B cover songs (hence this new album’s title), this compilation is a gas. Not only do you get “B-A-B-Y” and “Thank You John,” a couple of horns-laden ditties, you also get Chilton originals like “No Sex,” “Lost My Job” and “Underclass,” the former being Alex’s humorous look at the calamities that were affecting people’s sex lives in the mid ’80s (when AIDS was still new and not at all understood) and the latter two funny, bluesy stabs at the kind of lifestyle our hero was leading at that point in his life. Chilton’s arrangements are really good ’n’ raw – definitely not the clichéd kind of slick ’80s production that would be a turn-off to fans of Chilton’s revered band, Big Star – and are part of why most of these songs stand up to the test of time. This one’s worth picking up.
Songs from Robin Hood Lane, on the other hand, isn’t a no-brainer. While the idea of Alex Chilton belting out selections from the “classic American songbook” might sound good on paper, the recorded results indicate that that doesn’t always translate to analog tape. Chilton’s unschooled, technically imprecise singing is a benefit when he’s doing rock, blues and R&B, but in this genre his slightly wavering vocals often miss the mark. In fact, there are a few clams here that would have never made the grade on a Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald record. I’m talking about seriously wrong notes. Granted, in 2019, with the truckload of artists who have extended their careers by releasing CDs of standards, the burnout factor for this kind of enterprise is high. At the time he recorded these (primarily the early ’90s), his Medium Cool and Clichés releases may have been fun curveballs to throw at a party (and the title of the latter was definitely a home run), but today they’re practically superfluous to Chilton’s discography. The arrangements themselves are spare and pretty listenable, yes, but Alex the singer is out of his depth here. I mean, kudos to him for giving it a go, but I prefer it when Alex Chilton stuck to what he did best: rock ’n’ roll.
3/5, 2/5 (Bar None BRN-CD-258 & BRN-CD-259, 2019)