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Review: Alex Chilton, “Free Again: The 1970 Sessions”

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What makes a cult hero most?  Alex Chilton ascended to that lofty rank as the leader of Big Star, a band whose negligible commercial impact is only matched by its considerable influence over an entire generation of musicians.  When Chilton’s Paul McCartney met Chris Bell’s John Lennon (or vice versa?), they formed a brief but potent team as singers and songwriters.  What resulted was the exuberant power pop of the optimistically-titled No. 1 Record as recorded by Big Star: Chilton, Bell, Jody Stephens and Andy Hummel.  Bell departed after that one, shining album, having successfully synthesized the sounds of London, Memphis and Los Angeles into something shimmering and original.  Big Star itself imploded after just two more increasingly off-center LPs, and Chilton seemed to retreat, off to battle his personal demons.  Not one of the group’s three records had troubled the charts, quite a comedown for the man who had taught us how to “Cry Like a Baby” and whose baby wrote him “The Letter.”

Alex Chilton, who died in 2010, lived long enough to see his work reappraised by a new generation.  The Replacements name-checked him in song, and the Big Star catalogue appeared on CD from Fantasy, making it a bit easier for the albums to be circulated around college campuses everywhere: “Hey, have you heard this Big Star?”  That ‘70s Show selected a Big Star tune as its theme.  Chilton even re-formed the band in 1993.  As so often happens, the faithful became curious about Chilton’s past.  The Box Tops LPs were reissued on CD by Sundazed.  And in 1996, a missing link between The Box Tops and Big Star arrived in the form of 1970, on the Ardent label.  This compilation premiered an entire album’s worth of unheard compositions by the Box Tops’ moonlighting singer, in sessions at the future birthplace of Big Star, Ardent Studios.  1970 is the foundation of the latest release from Omnivore Recordings and Ace Records (OVCD-13).  Free Again: The “1970” Sessions expands that long out-of-print album from 13 tracks to 20, dramatically resequences it, and makes a strong case that Alex Chilton’s embryonic songwriting talents were as prodigious as his deeply soulful vocals.  (Free Again is also available as a 12-track LP, and the first 1,500 copies of that LP have been pressed on clear vinyl.)

Hit the jump to explore the 20 tracks found on Free Again!

Chilton’s solo efforts actually began in late summer 1969, but as he was in the final year of his contract with Chips Moman’s American Studios as a member of the Box Tops, the “1970” designation was assigned.  He clearly had learned a thing or two in the group, and had even persuaded Dan Penn (a renowned songwriter, often teamed with Spooner Oldham) to allow him to record a couple of original compositions which later turned up on 1970.  But Chilton’s cri de coeur, “Free Again,” said it all: “Free again, to do what I want again, free again, to sing my songs again/To end my longing, to be out on my own again!”  Over a twangy backing, Chilton vocally expressed his excitement at the prospect of no longer being “boxed” in by Moman and Penn’s group.

On “Free Again” and other cuts such as “Something Deep Inside,” he employed the deep, soulful voice of “The Letter.”  Other tracks, like the harder-edged “Come On, Honey” (a Box Tops remake) presage the higher register vocals of the Big Star days.  It’s tempting to say that the singer was finding his true voice, but the deeper, more burnished vocals are no less authentic.  (For comparison’s sake, a re-recorded “Free Again” vocal is included in stereo here.  Although the song is joyful in any performance, the “soul deep” take is stronger.)  Five tracks on Free Again are heard in mono mixes, two of which are making their debut.

One wonders if, like John Lennon, Chilton was essentially unhappy with the sound of his unadorned voice; he adopts many different tones and styles over these songs.  “I Can Take It” is tough and bluesy, and “Just to See You” is a funky soul stew.  The harshly humorous “All I Really Want is Money” is practically growled by its singer and songwriter over snarling guitars.  But the singer’s lighter side is expressed on the infectious, and indeed, Beatlesque “The EMI Song (Smile for Me).”  Inspired by a visit to Abbey Road’s Studio One where he composed the basis of the song on piano, “The EMI Song” is heard here both in mono and stereo.  The mono version could pass for a lost AM hit.  So strong is the melody and performance that you don’t notice that the track is largely unadorned; Chilton and his collaborator, producer/bassist/keyboardist Terry Manning, had originally planned to overdub horns, strings and the like on many of the solo tracks.  One of Free Again’s three never-before-issued songs, the acoustic ballad “All We We Ever Got From Them Was Pain” is another Beatlesque tune, plaintive and dark.  Its double-tracked harmonies dripping with emotion.

A new version of another rejuvenated Box Tops song, the country-tinged “The Happy Song” (“Sing us a happy little song that we can dance to/Sing us a song, a song of love and happiness”), is just as infectious, spotlighting the pedal steel of Jeff Newman.  He also plays on “Come On, Honey.”  Chilton had a strong gift for pop songcraft; it’s never more readily apparent than on “Every Day As We Grow Closer.  With its Brian Wilson-meets-Burt-Bacharach undercurrent, it has the kind of wonderful melodic changes that could only have come from the 1960s!  The song is heard twice; first, melded to the brief jam “Funky National” in stereo, and then in song-only form in mono.

There are a couple of covers that one doubts would have made the cut had Free Again been released as an album in 1970.  “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” is heard in a faithful (if “’luded out,” as per the liner notes!) and greasy, chugging take, while it’s even harder to take seriously the prog-rock version (!) of The Archies’ bubblegum manifesto “Sugar, Sugar.”  It’s a maniacal performance, with Terry Manning joining Chilton on the wailing (“Here come the Sugar!”).  Its hyper, hysterical vocals and searing guitars segue into a furious take on James Brown’s “I Got the Feelin’,” with the familiar “Sugar” riff winding in and out.  These tracks sit uneasily among the other pop nuggets.

Two more unheard songs conclude the album, a piano demo of “If You Would Marry Me,” a sweet pop ode to wife Suzie Green, and a guitar demo entitled “It Isn’t Always That Easy.”  The three previously unreleased songs, plus two additional unissued mixes, make Free Again essential even to those who already own 1970.  That 1996 CD is bolstered, too, by two more tracks (the mono mixes of “Every Day As We Grow Closer” and “The EMI Song”) that first appeared on Ace Records’ indispensable 2008 Thank You Friends: The Ardent Records Story, itself an essential companion to Rhino’s 2009 Big Star box set, Keep an Eye on the Sky.

Producers Terry Manning and Alec Palao have assembled a set that’s first-rate in every respect, including Bob Mehr’s excellent nine-page essay and Greg Allen’s stark, classy design.  Manning and Kevin Nix have superbly remastered each track.  The only sour note hit by the Free Again compact disc is that it’s incomplete, thanks to two bonus tracks (alternate mixes of “All We Ever Got From Them Was Pain”) available only from Omnivore’s web store as a bonus 7-inch vinyl single with purchase of the LP.

Later in his life, Alex Chilton’s music became more and more off-center, sometimes ragged and “tossed off,” if never less than fascinating.  The well-crafted songs of Free Again are a beautiful contrast, reflecting another side of an indomitable if restless spirit.  These songs leave us lamenting an album that never was, but grateful for their liberation: free again, at last.

Written by Joe Marchese

January 11, 2012 at 09:51

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