Two new Alex Chilton compilations show depth of artist (review)

Alex Chilton – Songs From Robin Hood Lane (Bar None)
Alex Chilton – From Memphis to New Orleans (Bar None)

A pair of new compilations focus on the multi-faceted career of this power pop legend

Mention Alex Chilton’s name and you usually think of his brilliantly melodic, yet criminally under-appreciated work with his band Big Star, or the sugary-sweet, blue-eyed soul of the Box Tops. Yet, if you look at his entire oeuvre, you’ll find a far more stylistically-diverse artist than he’s given credit for. There were times when Chilton seemed far more intent on shocking an audience than creating lasting music. He would often embrace his past, then disown it, sometimes in the same breath. Two new compilations from Bar None Records attempt to add some clarity to the twists and turns in Chilton’s long career. From Memphis to New Orleans chronicles his post-Seventies solo career, while Songs From Robin Hood Lane compiles the best of Chilton mining the jazz standards of his youth.

Songs From Robin Hood Lane seems light years away from Big Star, but this is what the young Chilton cut his teeth on.

Three tracks come from a one-off collaboration assembled by bassist Ron Miller, featuring multiple vocalists, called Medium Cool. The project released one album called Imagination, which served as a tribute to jazz trumpeter and crooner Chet Baker, who was enjoying a resurgence in popularity in 1991 (Chilton had often cited him as a big influence). The trio of songs Chilton recorded for the album: “That Old Feeling,” “Like Someone in Love,” and “Look For the Silver Lining,” definitely channel the late jazz legend in the cool, somewhat detached vocal delivery. All three tracks are augmented by excellent sax from Robert Arron. These are fairly hard to find, so it’s nice to have them available again.

A couple of years later, Miller reconvened the same backing band for a proposed full album of jazz standards featuring Chilton. The four songs from those sessions are all previously unreleased, but arguably are some of his finest performances of this genre. “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” (the Ray Charles’ song, not Gerry & the Pacemakers) is sweetened with a fantastic flute solo (also done by the multi-talented Arron), while “There Will Never Be Another You,” “Time After Time,” and “Save Your Love For Me” feature fine sax breaks. Chilton seems fully engaged here, his singing is passionate and soulful.

The remaining cuts come from a 1993 album called Clichés, which show a completely different side – Chilton alone, just vocals and guitar. This is some pretty heady material to tackle solo, yet he’s up to the challenge. Jazz chords adorn the extended opening to “Let’s Get Lost,” then he fluidly tackles “All of You.” He even whistles on the album’s closer, “What Was.”

From Memphis To New Orleans sums up Chilton’s mid-Eighties’ work, after returning home from a sabbatical in the Crescent City. He had left town after the noisy, unhinged Like Flies on Sherbet. The first four tracks come from 1985’s Feudalist Tart EP, and find him refocused. A pair of R&B covers track his journey – “B-A-B-Y” comes originally from Memphis native Carla Thomas, while “Thank You John,” now a Carolina Beach Music standard, was recorded by New Orleans’ own Willie Tee. Both these tracks are driven by a great horn section and fat bass.

“Lost My Job” was a biting Chilton original about his trials in cajun country, which features great harmonica and slide guitar, while “Paradise” sounds like a 1950’s country classic, but is actually another Chilton original.

“No Sex” is a blunt account of single life in the post-AIDS environment of 1986, featuring a honking sax, while “Underclass” is a self-deprecating slice of jump blues, featuring more great slide guitar.

There are no two songs that better sum up Chilton’s herky jerky career than the stripper anthem “Take it Off,” followed by the Skeeter Davis’ b-side “Let Me Get Close to You.” These both come from 1987’s High Priest, but damn – where the hell is he really going here? “Dalai Lama” is kind of The Hollywood Argyles’ “Alley Oop” turned inside out, while “Make a Little Love” is a somewhat goofy cover of an obscure song by Jimmy Holiday.

From the 1989 Blacklist EP comes a faithful cover of Ronny & the Daytonas’ “Little GTO,” including the falsetto vocals, and, perhaps the best song on the entire set, “Guantanamerika,” which somehow name checks crop dusters and Tammy Faye Baker over one of the most melodic instrumentals he’s done in years. As an added bonus, Chilton does a respectful take on Charlie Rich’s Sun records’ nugget, “Lonely Weekends.”

Too often Alex Chilton’s solo output is summed up as “difficult” or “unfocused,” and while there was some of both of those elements at times, there’s still plenty of fantastic material to enjoy. From Memphis to New Orleans does a great job of grabbing the best of post-Big Star Alex Chilton, with plenty of surprises along the way. –Tony Peters