Alex Chilton review
Review by Tom Graves – Rock & Roll Disc, April, 1991
19 Years: A Collection of Alex Chilton (Rhino Records)
If any one person is emblematic of the musical malaise of rock’s cutting edge during the 1980’s, it would have to be cult factotum Alex Chilton, who has become such a legendary underground figure that other cult bands like the Replacements write songs of tribute to him. When you consider that Alex Chilton’s career brings new meaning to the word “checkered,” his cultdom becomes even more suspect.
My long-standing complaint against Chilton – and, alas, much of what passes for alternative music – is that instead of turning his attentions to the hard work and elbow grease required of songcraft, he has sought to substitute attitude, pose, and that nebulous “capturing the moment” as a suitable replacement. As writer Tom Wolfe pointed out in his infamous expose of the New York art community, “The Painted Word,” what then becomes most important is not talent, or even the art itself, but in how well one can do the “boho dance” – how well an artist can parlay bohemian chicness into a career.
What I find doubly intriguing is that Alex Chilton’s current crop of fans are almost always ignorant of the Box Tops, where Chilton incontestably did his finest work on great slabs of iconic blue-eyed soul like “The Letter,” “Soul Deep,” and “Cry Like A Baby.” After the Box Tops, Chilton formed Big Star (named after a Memphis grocery chain), which released three critically-hailed but publicly ignored albums. The final Big Star album, Third/Sister Lovers, was produced by the problematic Jim Dickinson, another artist who all too often confuses inspiration with perspiration. Their collaboration resulted in album schizophrenia with tight, fat-shorn pop nuggets like “You Can’t Have Me” nestled to chaotic, meandering bilge like “Kangaroo.”
After Chilton went solo he released one crappy record after another (such as the dreadful Like Flies on Sherbet – p.u.!); he was on his last leg, alcoholic, and washng dishes in New Orleans when he cleaned up his act and made an astonishing comeback. Feudalist Tarts, unlike previous solo efforts, returned Chilton to his Memphis soul roots; his playing and singing were better than they had been in years. For the album, Chilton rounded up some of Memphis’s tightest groove musicians, brought them to the studio after-hours, and recaptured some of his past glory. Feudalist Tarts was one of those rare occurrences – which happens only with the most seasoned and motivated players – where the music finds a solid groove yet feels totally laid back and loose. Chilton followed this with the gritty, bitterly funny “No Sex” EP. For one moment pregnant with possibility Chilton looked like he was finally breaking out of his slump – he was working hard, playing killer guitar (“Lost My Job”), and singing expressively, even though he still couldn’t touch his Box Tops vocals.
Then came High Priest and he was right back to square one; the playing was slouchy, the singing abominable, and the choice of material baffling (why “Volare”?).
If it’s an accurate documentary of a puzzling career you’re after, Rhino’s new Alex Chilton compilation is not only serviceable, but insightful. It will quickly clue you in that abut 90% of Chilton’s output is rotten to the core. And considering the inclusion of Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers’s worst songs, you may even begin to question (as I have for years) the worthiness of that album.
Since on a playability scale this compilation rates about two stars (out of five), if you’re curious about Alex Chilton start with his domestic Box Tops CD, move on to the British import two-fer of Big Star’s #1 Record/Radio City, and if you still can’t get enough seek out Chilton’s Stuff CD on the import New Rose label, which includes the entire Feudalist Tarts and “No Sex” EPs, plus some of his best singles.