Rarities Showcase More Facets of Cult Favorite Alex Chilton
Alex Chilton died in 2010 at age 59 but he continues to surprise fans via the release of rare and often previously unavailable material. Consider From Memphis to New Orleans and Songs from Robin Hood Lane, both of which are due out on February 8. Granted, you can hear occasional hints of Chilton’s late-period work with Big Star on these discs but for the most part, the new LPs appear to issue from another universe—as far removed from his work with both the Box Tops (“The Letter”) and Big Star as those groups were from each other. (Chilton’s voice and style changed at least as much from the first of those bands to the second as Bob Dylan’s did from Blonde on Blonde to Nashville Skyline.)
Songs from Robin Hood Lane, which is named for the street in a Memphis suburb where Chilton grew up, finds him doing what artists like Dylan and Rod Stewart would do years later: paying tribute to the Great American Songbook. Chilton delivers a dozen jazz and pop standards, most or all of which he first encountered in the record library of his father Sidney, a trumpeter and pianist. These performances—four previously unreleased and the rest long-unavailable—seem most influenced by the vocal work of jazz trumpeter Chet Baker.
Like Baker, Chilton doesn’t exactly have a four-octave voice, but what he lacks in range he makes up in sincerity, personality, and an obvious love of the material. Instrumentation sometimes consists only of Chilton’s guitar, though there’s excellent horn work on some tracks. Songs here that are associated with Baker include “There Will Never Be Another You,” “Look for the Silver Lining,” “Like Someone in Love,” “That Old Feeling,” and “Let’s Get Lost.” Also on the program: “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” (the Joe Greene standard, not the Gerry and the Pacemakers pop hit), Sammy Kahn and J. Styne’s “Time after Time,” and Cole Porter’s “All of You.”
The other new album, From Memphis to New Orleans, sounds like a labor of love as well. Chilton recorded it in the 1980s after a rough post–Big Star period during which he worked as a janitor, dishwasher, and tree trimmer; mostly stayed away from music; and reportedly drank too much. All of the 15 tracks have been previously released (most of them appeared on a compilation called High Priest/Feudalist Tarts), but they have been out of print for years.
Like Songs from Robin Hood Lane, this album features laid-back vocals, but the pace is quicker and the instrumentation is richer. While the other CD focuses on standards, also, this one ventures into R&B and rock territory, and it incorporates some original compositions. Covers include Skeeter Davis’s “Let Me Get Close to You” (by Gerry Goffin and Carole King), Ronny and the Daytonas’ 1964 rock hit “Little GTO,” and Don Gibson’s “Lonely Weekend” (a rockabilly success for Charlie Rich) as well as such R&B obscurities as Willie Tee’s “Thank You John” and Eve Darby’s “Take It Off.” Among the originals are “Guantanamerika,” a jab at televangelists; “Paradise,” which sounds redolent of very early Beatles; and the rollicking “Underclass,” in which Chilton sings “People think that I’m a rich musician but no…Let me just describe my position. It’s way down, it’s all the way down.”
Nothing on either of these CDs suggests that Chilton is posthumously headed for a mass audience; the musical eclecticism, vocal approach, and spare instrumentation on both albums seem destined to keep him in cult-fan territory. That said, there’s a lot here for the cult to savor.
Charlie Faye and the Fayettes, The Whole Shebang. Wait a minute—what year is this? You might be asking yourself that question after listening to this sophomore release, which is due out February 8. Like its 2016 predecessor, it finds Faye and her talented pair of backup singers harkening back to the 1960s era that produced acts like the Ronettes, the Shangri-Las, the Supremes, and Lesley Gore. There are a few direct quotes—the opening beats of “I Don’t Need No Baby” are straight out of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” for example (though the song’s declaration-of-independence lyrics will remind you more of Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me”). But this is all new material, and it’s first-rate. So are the vocals by Faye, who sometimes sounds reminiscent of Ronnie Spector. The backup crew, which includes Elvis Costello drummer Pete Thomas, is excellent as well.
Cold War Kids, This Will All Blow Over in Time. Southern California indie-rock band Cold War Kids—and particularly lead singer Nathan Willett, who occasionally recalls Jeff Buckley’s rock side—have an idiosyncratic and at times discordant sound that I suspect most listeners will either love or hate. Count me in the former group. Willett’s vocals are as intense as David Byrne’s; the band’s lyrics are consistently imaginative; and their blues- and soul-inflected music is tightly woven and loaded with twists and turns. This two-CD retrospective covers Cold War Kids’ first 15 years, during which five of its six studio LPs made the U.S. top 20. On the program: a dozen of their best-known songs, including “Hang Me Up to Dry,” “Audience of One,” “We Used to Vacation,” and “All This Could Be Yours,” plus 11 excellent rarities and previously unreleased numbers, such as a cover of Nick Cave’s “Opium Tea”; a demo of “First,” the group’s biggest hit single; a live version of “We Used to Vacation” (called “Vacation in Chicago” because it was recorded in that city); and two tracks from a long out-of-print 2005 debut EP.
A Different Thread, On a Whim. U.K.-based Robert Jackson met North Carolina’s Alicia Best two years ago while both were busking in Galway, Ireland. “As soon as our voices locked in harmony,” Best has recalled, “I was like, ‘OK, this is the good stuff!’” Indeed it is. Both are fine vocalists and songwriters—they penned everything here except the traditional “Prickly Bush”—and their debut album is on a par with the work of artists like Steeleye Span and Richard and Linda Thompson. (In fact, Best sounds a bit like Linda.) Featuring backup that includes accordion, mandolin, cello, viola, violin, and trumpet, they have come up with what surely ranks with the most impressive folk debuts of the year.
Ruth Wyand & the Tribe of One, Tribe of One. The Tribe of One band is aptly named because it turns out to consist only of the North Carolina–based Ruth Wyand, who provides all the vocals, guitar work, and percussion on this country blues album. She also wrote all of the songs on the CD with the exception of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing,” Bob Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell,” and Etta Baker’s instrumental “Mint Julep.” Her fingerpicking and Delta slide guitar work are a pleasure, as are her unadorned, soulful vocals.
Donna the Buffalo, Dance in the Street. You may feel like taking the title’s advice while listening to this upbeat eighth studio album from Donna the Buffalo. The group’s first CD in five years features an abundance of snappy melodies and inventive instrumentation. An even bigger plus on highlights like “Top Shelf” and “Across the Way” are the lead vocals, which are provided on alternating tracks by group cofounders Jeb Puryear and Tara Nevins, who wrote the numbers they sing. Donna the Buffalo have a sound all their own, but there’s something about the funky groove, the social commentary, and the live-in-the-studio analog recording that harkens back to 60s outfits like the Grateful Dead, Big Brother, and Jefferson Airplane.
Jeff Burger’s website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary. His books include the recently published Dylan on Dylan: Interviews and Encounters as well as Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon, Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters, and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters.