Here’s the backstory first:
February 8 will see Bar/None Records’ release of two thought-provoking looks at an often-overlooked period of rock icon Alex Chilton’s long, curious career. Alex was at the height of his cult fame in the mid-1980’s to mid-1990’s when he made these recordings. It features some of his best, most honest work – oddly neglected for some time but delivered here for enthusiasts and neophytes, alike.
All these recordings have been out of print for decades.
In the last 15 years of his life, Alex Chilton revisited a lot of the songs he heard in the 1950’s, especially doing his own versions of standards, much like his father had played and shared with him. Songs From Robin Hood Lane collects four previously unreleased performances as well as rare tracks and recordings, long out of print.
Chilton’s father, Sidney, was a jazz trumpeter and piano player and had a large record library that the young Alex would explore. Alex heard the Chet Baker Sings album in 1957, when the family was living in a post-war Memphis suburb on a street called Robin Hood Lane. Tragedy struck the Chilton family that year, when his older brother Reid, tragically died in a freak drowning accident. Baker’s haunting delivery gave some cold comfort to a kid who was suddenly adrift without the older brother he revered.
In an effort to get beyond the tragedy, the family moved away from Robin Hood Lane into a large Victorian house in Midtown Memphis – an area that had fallen on hard times as the suburbs prospered. Sid and Mary Chilton remade themselves into patrons of the arts, turning their home into a gallery/salon, where musicians came to play, potters and painters displayed their wares in the first floor hall and left-of-center political views were discussed. The photographer, William Eggleston, set up a darkroom in a backyard building.
From Memphis to New Orleans contains recordings Chilton made in the 1980’s, when he emerged from a self-imposed exile and began performing again. Alex knew he had to get out of Memphis; except for a couple of short stints in New York City, he had lived in Memphis his whole life. The city was closing in on him, his music career was in shambles and he had developed a drinking problem. The hit records as a teenager in the Box Tops and critical acclaim for his work with Big Star in his twenties were all well and good; he’d dabbled in the CBGB punk scene in the late ’70’s and brought that attitude down South for the album Like Flies On Sherbert (subsequently joining the anarchic southern punkabilly outfit, Panther Burns) but now the money had run out and he was uncomfortable with the fame that still lingered.
When an old family friend suggested he might remake himself in New Orleans, Chilton was ready for the change. He made the move, quit drinking and quietly disappeared into his new hometown. He abandoned music as a livelihood and worked as a dishwasher, janitor, and tree trimmer, occasionally playing in cover bands in local honky-tonks. And as the time in New Orleans seemed to do a world of good for Chilton, the legend started to grow and spread again through the likes of then up-and-coming bands like The dB’s, R.E.M. and The Replacements (to name but a few) who would name-check Chilton and his work with Big Star.
Without wanting to give too much away – since there are two albums’ worth of material for you to discover, explore and savor, I’ll just point out the tracks that either stood out to me upon first listen (from those that were previously unreleased) or have lived with me since I first heard them. From From Memphis To New Orleans (which is all from various late ’80’s releases), I have to say “No Sex” is one of my favorites; a funny little “warning” about the perils of, well, getting laid during a volatile era, with its classic line “come on, baby – fuck me and die”; “Take It Off”, originally on High Priest (1987) is a hypnotic groove, again, about sex – done with Chilton’s sardonic wit and “Lost My Job”, from 1985’s Feudalist Tarts E.P. is a spoof of Dylan’s “Most Likely You’ll Go Your Way And I’ll Go Mine” but when it comes to Chilton, he turns it around to a very minimalistic blues-y vibe.
Of the standout tracks on Songs From Robin Hood Lane, the very cool, mid-’50’s vibe of Chilton’s take on Ray Charles’ “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying” is a revelation. He sings with a natural, smooth flow – akin to the vocal style he had used during his Big Star days, but there’s a purety in this; you can almost feel his joy in revisiting these standards and the musicianship is on-the-one. The stripped-down, galloping acoustic guitar and vocal of “My Baby Just Cares For Me”, originally from Cliches (1994) is not only charming, it shows the unadulterated talent of Chilton as a guitarist in more than his known rock vein. The cafe lushness of “There Will Never Be Another You”, again, is one of those almost unreal moments – a swinging, deadpan cool that only could be pulled of by Chilton, free of pretension and forced performance. And you can tell his performance of the aforementioned Chet Baker’s “Let’s Get Lost” (also from Cliches) is simply a labor of love.
What makes these two compilations of this fascinating artist so valuable is that it shows a width to Alex Chilton’s musical spectrum. If you know his history, you shouldn’t be surprised, but hearing his execution of the jazz material is simply stunning. Both albums are more than worth their while for listening and enjoying – they’re a intriguing glimpse into the complex talent that was Alex Chilton. So take advantage of it; it will lead you to looking into him with greater interest and depth.
Both titles will be released on Friday, February 8th, 2019