Now here’s a real treat – not one but two albums of previously unreleased tracks and forgotten gems from one of the great counter-culture musicians, Alex Chilton. Chilton was a true original and a great example of a musician who followed his own star rather than pursue simple commercial success. Starting out as a teenager he experienced stardom as vocalist for blue eyed soul band The Box Tops, whose early songs included compositions by great country soul writers Spooner Oldham & Dan Penn and Chilton retained a working relationship with Penn for much of his early career, being the voice that Penn preferred to demo his songs. He also went on to be a founding member of alt-rockers Big Star, a band that was ahead of its time in pioneering a form of power pop that would prove to be so influential on the music of bands like REM and The Replacements. It’s this mix of rock, blues and soul that Chilton is best known for and which makes him such an interesting artist from the Americana perspective.
These two albums are particularly important because they come from a time a little later in Chilton’s career when he was working as a solo artist and exploring a lot of his own influences. And they really couldn’t be more different. First we have ‘From Memphis to New Orleans’, a collection of recordings from the 1980s, just after he’d emerged from a self-imposed exile. In 1982, feeling like he needed to make some changes in his life, Alex Chilton re-located from Memphis to New Orleans where he gave up music as his main source of income and started working as a “dishwasher, janitor and tree trimmer”. Playing in occasional cover bands it would be another couple of years before he would start to perform and record again in his own right. What’s really interesting about these recordings is the big change in his vocal style – the strident, soul-infused voice of the big band frontman has gone and what emerges is a much more laid back and lighter vocal style.
He sounds slightly reminiscent of Jonathan Richman in places; very different to the Alex Chilton that many of us would expect. ‘From Memphis to New Orleans’ is a good mix of covers and originals and includes an excellent version of the Porter/Hayes classic ‘B-A-B-Y’ which had been a major hit for Carla Thomas, as well as songs from Gerry Goffin and Carole King and Dan Penn, among others. There are seven Chilton original tracks on this album, some of which are written about his experiences at the time – tracks like ‘Lost My Job’ and ‘Underclass’. Perhaps the best of Chilton’s songs from this period is ‘Guantamerika’, a rousing, horn-driven song with a great groove.
This is a really good album that offers an interesting insight into Alex Chilton and his attempt to find his own sound in the wake of his experiences with The Box Tops and Big Star. There’s a much leaner, stripped-down approach to recording that, allied with his new, vulnerable sounding vocal delivery, makes for a more open structure to the material that works especially well on his own songs.
The second album – ‘Songs from Robin Hood Lane’ is where things get really interesting. This is an album of Jazz standards, recorded in the 90s, which might come as a bit of a shock to fans who don’t know much about Chilton outside of his Box Tops/Big Star associations – but Chilton was a jazz fan of long standing and his roots in the music run deep. Chilton’s father, Sidney Chilton, had been a professional jazz musician before the need to provide for a young family had taken him into more secure employment. Alex Chilton was brought up with the sound of many of the jazz greats resounding around the family home but he particularly fixed on Chet Baker, the jazz trumpeter who, in 1954 released a vocal album ‘Chet Baker Sings’ and which Chilton would later cite as a major influence on his own singing. ‘Songs from Robin Hood Lane’ is Chilton’s homage to the music of his youth and it’s a great collection of recordings. OK, it’s jazz and wouldn’t normally fall under the remit of a magazine focused on Americana – but it is, very much, an American art form and you can hear a lot of jazz influence in country music, especially when you think of Western Swing and some of the song structures in Bluegrass. It’s a genuine pleasure to hear a singer of Chilton’s quality let loose on a set of jazz standards such as ‘Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying’ and ‘All of You’ and, while he’s no Nina Simone he more than does justice to ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’. The other nice thing about these recordings is the opportunity to hear just what a good guitar player Chilton became, with many of these recordings being just him and his guitar.
Bar None Records deserve some genuine thanks and respect for bringing these recordings of rarities and lost tracks back into the light. If you thought Alex Chilton was defined by his work with The Box Tops and/or Big Star then seek out these albums and appreciate what a diverse and talented musician he really was.