Tag Archives: Alex Chilton

The Box Tops • The Letter/Neon Rainbow–Cry Like a Baby–Non Stop–Dimensions [2CD]

I approach these “lots of albums on one or two CDs” collections kind of cautiously. After all, if the albums were so damn good, wouldn’t people be willing to pick them up as separate discs? Case in point: THE BOX TOPSThe Letter/Neon Rainbow– Cry Like a Baby–Non Stop–Dimensions. This new 2CD, four album release comprises all of the band’s studio albums in one handy set, and it’s definitely a hit and miss affair.

You may remember a few of The Box Tops’ bigger hits, such as the once ubiquitous ’60s AM radio staples “The Letter” (“Give me a ticket for an aeroplane…”) – a Number One, mind you – and “Cry Like a Baby,” both of which we still hear today in movie soundtracks in order to set the time period or to establish some sort of emotional vibe for people of “a certain age”. The band weren’t a slapped together group or a studio concoction, exactly, but were made up of a Memphis group called The Devilles who added 15 year old local Alex Chilton as lead singer, recorded a cool new song in a local studio, and then went on to fame (but apparently not much fortune) and the pop radio tour circuit. Chilton himself later joined Big Star, another Memphis group that went on to acclaim as a cult power pop band. (See my coverage of them here.) After that, Alex went solo and on to college radio stardom (as in, culter-than-cult status) before the 1990s when Big Star finally had its day. All types of fame are relative, of course, so what you know about any of these groups’ band or solo discographies depends on how you like your pop music. Regardless, Alex Chilton was one of those guys who had fame on about every level a musician can – except maybe without the cold, hard cash that typically comes with it. Anyway, back to The Box Tops…

The four albums that make up this set are of your typical Sixties variety, being made up of a hit single or two and then another ten or so songs good enough to help pad out an LP. A few songs on each of these records stand out a bit more than the rest, but basically, after the hit singles there’s not a lot here to get your everyday music fan excited. Sure, guys like me will be interested in, for instance, other songs that the guy who wrote “The Letter” wrote, or The Box Tops’ version of Vanilla Fudge’s cover of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” (not that different from the Fudge’s), but after that even I have to call “time” on things. Yet, for £9.95 plus shipping, this 2CD is worth the price. IF you really dig Alex Chilton, that is.  — Marsh Gooch

2.5/5 (Beat Goes On BGOCD1400, UK, 2020)

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Big Star • In Space [CD, LP]

If you started with BIG STAR’s In Space and worked your way backwards through Third/Sister Lovers, Radio City and then #1 Record, you’d feel like you’d quickly worked your way to an easy jackpot. Sorta like playing the slots and winning with the first lever pull (okay, these days, button push), then winning some more, then winning A LOT more, and then BOOM! Lights flash, slot machine makes all kinds of exciting noise and then the attendant comes over to give you buckets and buckets of coin. That may be exaggerating the point, but the final album in Big Star’s four album trajectory (not counting live stuff) is a winner, it’s just nowhere near as great as the others.

The rock critic in me feels bad making such a statement about In Space, as I know both Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow in real life and they’re a couple of great guys – AND they’re talented as hell! When they hooked up with remaining Big Stars Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens in the early ’90s all of us in the Seattle music scene were excited for these founders of The Posies, perfect youngbloods, to bolster the once brilliant band. They did some live concerts, eventually releasing a few (Columbia, Live in Memphis) and doing some short tours. When it was announced that Big Star Mk IV were in the studio recording an album of new material, it came as a pleasant surprise, tempered by the likelihood that whatever they recorded wouldn’t match the excellence of the original band’s (as in Mks I, II & III) near-immaculate output. Okay, maybe what turned out to be In Space might equal Third/Sister Lovers in awesomeness, but even that was likely not gonna happen. What I’m saying is, In Space turned out to be a pretty nice little album. Not necessarily essential listening, but in a way, exactly where you’d have expected Big Star to land if they’d stayed together. AND… it could’ve been a disaster. That, my friends, is why the Posies/Big Star merger made total sense: Because it didn’t end in disaster.

The album starts with the four best tracks, “Dony,” “Lady Sweet,” “Best Chance” and “Turn My Back on the Sun,” all songs that sport that patented Big Star power pop mixture: catchy tunes, tough but melodic guitars, hard pounding drums and killer harmonies. There’s even a Brian Wilson tribute (“Turn My Back”) with vocals that deserve to be heard on their own (which is just what you get as a bonus track). In Space also includes a pair of funky workouts like those Alex Chilton favored in his mid ’80s solo phase (“Do You Wanna Make It” and the Archie Bell & The Drells-inspired “Love Revolution,” which works as a nice mid album change of pace). Did you know that Ken Stringfellow is a real good bass player? Dig his playing here!

I can’t say all of the album is that good. I could live without “Aria, Largo,” which is an instrumental cover of baroque composer Georg Muffat’s original that sounds like the guys are still learning it, and the remaining songs are alright but not essential. But what the album lacks in all-out Big Star goodness it makes up for in a lighthearted, fun vibe that permeates the entire disc.

Omnivore’s 2019 reissue includes a rocking epic called “Hot Thing” that they ought to have included when the album was originally released in 2005, some demos and a rough mix, and the aforementioned a cappella take. The CD version sounds muscular and dynamic, and I’d assume the vinyl (initially available on clear blue wax) is going to sound similarly swell. It’s a worthwhile purchase, especially if you don’t have the original Rykodisc issue. Basically, in my dad’s words, In Space is “not too shabby.” Not superb, but NTS. — Marsh Gooch

2.75/5 (Ominvore OVCD-338, 2019)

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Alex Chilton • From Memphis to New Orleans, Songs from Robin Hood Lane [CD, LP]

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)

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Alex Chilton • A Man Called Destruction [CD, LP]

Last month Omnivore reissued ALEX CHILTON’s 1995 album, A Man Called Destruction. Aptly titled, Chilton himself described it as “a soulful effort by a fairly primitive mind.” The album is a musical stew of rock ’n’ roll, New Orleans R&B/jazz and more – recorded the way this kind of stuff used to be recorded: live in the studio, one or two takes, minimal overdubs.

Recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis, Destruction’s twelve songs (and this reissue’s bonus tracks) have a wonderful feel because they’re not perfect. Those who only know Chilton via the Big Star records will be thrown for a loop by Destruction. The arrangements aren’t power pop at all – sorry, Radio City fans – this is what Alex sounded like when he led the band all by himself. The songs, too, are primarily Alex’s, though there’s a handful of cool covers, including Jimmy Reed’s “You Don’t Have to Go” and Chris Kenner’s “Sick and Tired.” The latter track is one Chilton had been doing in his solo shows (when not “reuniting” Big Star with half of Seattle band The Posies). Buoyed by his own soulfully raw guitar sound, the arrangements include a rough but ready horn section and some real primal organ (check out his “Don’t Stop” to hear what I mean).

Omnivore’s reissue adds seven bonus tracks to A Man Called Destruction, including some alternate takes, a couple of originals that didn’t make the final album, and a cover of Clarence “Frogman” Henry’s “(I Don’t Know Why) But I Do,” kind of a fitting sentiment about how some of us feel about Alex Chilton. Apparently, those who knew Alex Chilton say the two spheres of sound (power pop and primitive rock) were equally at home in the man’s psyche, a reflection of his own personality. Sometimes affable and agreeable, sometimes contrary and difficult, like it or not that was Chilton. We don’t know why we love him (at least we can’t exactly pinpoint it), but we do.

Available now on download, CD and 2LP vinyl (clear blue for the initial pressing) including all of the bonus tracks.

3/5 (Omnivore OV-227)

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