Monday, March 22, 2010

Alex Chilton 1950-2010

Not since Kurt Cobain's last day has a celebrity death hit me so hard. I guess I never felt that Alex Chilton got what he deserved although he famously (amongst rock crit types) sang otherwise as Side One came to a close on Radio City. Still, the poptimist in me found it easy to ignore him for the last decade-plus. Case in point: I wrote the review below for the long-departed (and decently paying) online music mag Addicted to Noise (swallowed up by which then obliterated its writers on September 12, 2001) and probably edited by Billy Altman (I think the overtaxed Melissa Price had bowed out by this point) with equal parts fandom and boredom. It's my de facto tribute to a man who had no interest in death (or sleep). (There are only minimal edits below which means the groanworthy "set" puns are preserved.)

Alex Chilton - Set (Bar/None)
Rating: *** (can't recall out of how many)
Release Date: 2/25/00

Somehow wrinkles don't suit Alex Chilton. The crow's feet and leathery nooks in his face on the back cover of Set come as sort of a surprise if not an insult, as if they weathered his veneer too soon. Then again, nothing has ever arrived on time with Alex Chilton going all the way back to the manly croak with which he sang "The Letter" in 1967 as a sixteen year old Box Top and the pimply cracked voice he's been stuck with ever since he debuted Big Star several years later. His has been a career of square pegs fitting through round holes, a doomed condition that will relegate him to cult obscurity forever. Somehow, though, the little star who wrote 1974's "What's Going Ahn," a tortoise-shelled cri de confusion more gut-wrenchingly beautiful than anything in Marvin Gaye's oeuvre, deserves widespread glory.

But really, most of the above is just cultspeak bullshit. We all succumb to the march of time eventually. The real challenge to an artist whose had as long a career as Chilton is to ride every wave so that getting old sounds more thrilling than dying young. Set proves how difficult meeting that challenge is.

You'd think an album that includes instrumentals of jazz standards, spirited retakes of soul classics new and old, and a cover of country sinner Gary Stewart's "Single Again" might make for forty minutes of unbridled enthusiasm. But Chilton has been playing the archaeologist lounge lizard historian since about 1985 occasionally peppering updates of "Volare" or "The Christmas Song" with his own outré originals. Set in his ways, he's crossed off originals altogether on the set list here settling into a release pattern that will yield a disc of personal favorites every few years or so. No wonder Bar/None changed the title from Loose Shoes & Tight Pussy when it was released in France a few months ago.

Set works best when he indulges his love for black music. Brenton Wood's "Oogum Boogum" and Ollie Nightingale's "You've Got a Booger Bear Under There" retell the history of soul as a series of great oddball trifles and Chilton knows how to make oddball sing - with a goofy falsetto whine, that is. And the delightful reading of the ancient reefer song "You's A Viper" never condescends and should get you started on your Stuff Smith obsession even though another cult hero, Wayne Kramer, already blew the dust off it on Hempilation 2 a few years back.

But the band, including Chilton at times, could scarcely care about the proceedings and they play everything loose and sloppy. Nothing fills in with a snap, crackle, or, worst of all, pop. So the instrumentals are particularly brutal in their pointlessness. "April in Paris" compounds the annoyance with multiple false endings. If anything is putting these songs over, then, it's the intermittent energy and joy in Chilton's voice. But as he retreats further into the past, it becomes increasingly difficult to rally behind him as a cultural as opposed to cult hero.


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