Alex Chilton’s storied and meandering career moved from Big Star in the early 1970s toward dynamic solo records like Singer Not the Song and Bach’s Bottom in the mid-to-late 1970s (those albums backed up and complimented by a 2017 out-takes compilation Take Me Home and Make Me Like It). His career hit a unique place in the early 1980s when he left Memphis to live in New Orleans and work odd jobs outside performing and recording. Two new compilation albums from Bar/None Records collect tracks that document and demonstrate return to music following that “self-exile”.
The first, From Memphis to New Orleans includes recordings made between 1985 and 1989 in a set that illustrates Chilton repertoire and extensive influences and compliments his successful High Priest album. The second, Songs from Robin Hood Lane compiles an album of covers of 1950s standards. The titles of both compilations articulate Chilton’s life and musical contributions, directly referencing his move from Memphis to New Orleans that reshaped his career in the 1980s, and his suburban childhood home that shaped his love of music before tragedy struck and his jazz trumpeter father moved the family from their home at 987 Robin Hood Lane.
Since his death in 2010, Chilton’s career has earned and enjoyed consistent reissues and compilations that unravel and untangle his independent spirit and career. With From Memphis to New Orleans and Songs from Robin Hood Lane, the composition of tracks blends well-known covers and tracks with unreleased materials to provide a vivid and engaging expansion of Chilton’s catalog. One component present immediately from both collections is the truly collected nature of both, and Bar/None should be complimented for documenting Chilton’s recordings in order to illustrate the range he carried from his influenced across the spectrum of musical style in his life time and his dynamic performance capabilities. Chilton’s presence is immense and the songs crisp without any indication they were pulled from separate sessions, dates, moods, etc. Instead, they collect Chilton and offer a complete album that belies that they are both compilations.
Taken chronologically, From Memphis to New Orleans captures more than a disparate set of tracks recorded over four years and with numerous singles, EPs, and Chilton’s album High Priest album. Instead, the album pulls together a set of tracks that explore Chilton’s wide influences and reflect his ability to cover and reproduce the energy and excitement of a live performance. The compilation excels in its ability to showcase a focused intent despite tracks recorded over a long period and without that result in mind when recorded: Chilton’s vocals are bright and forceful, the band performances strong, and the arrangements strong and varied to compliment his personality. Opening with “B-A-B-Y” and “Thank You John”, two impressive covers, From Memphis to New Orleans segues into a strong selection of Chilton’s compositions without too distinctive any stylistic shift. The spirit and energy flow directly into his more personalized lyrics and at times abrasive guitar and band performances.
Chilton’s “Underclass” is the standout among his originals, conveying his influence upon punk musicians and commentary on working-class roots with rock and roll. “People think that I’m a rich musician, but no that isn’t my condition. Let me just describe my position. It’s way down, all the way down.” It is additionally representative of the career direction indicated by the album’s title. His work in New Orleans ranged from working as a dishwasher, janitor, and tree trimmer, with occasional performances in cover bands at local honky-tonks according to the press release for the records. The songs here generate a mood no doubt inspired by scenes and experiences witnessed. “Lost My Job”, “No Sex”, and “Paradise” articulate optimism more than any desperation and capture captivating pop and energy in those types of experiences and work. There is an immediacy to the tracks, too, drawing on his life in the 1980s while additionally reflecting influences across his career to that time.
The middle parts of From Memphis to New Orleans drift between entertaining covers like “Let Me Get Close to You” (a Goffin-King composition) and Chilton originals such as “Dalai Lama”. Despite a more tangible subject than his cover, the songs represent impressive song writing alongside covering classics and influential songs from his childhood and coming of age in the 1950s and 1960s. It is equally a useful aspect of this compilation as it weaves nice covers like “Nobody’s Fool” and “Little GTO” toward the more focused concept of pop standard covers included on Songs from Robin Hood Lane.
In his performances included on Songs from Robin Hood Lane, a sweetness in Chilton’s voice is fully backed by traditional jazz accompaniments in presenting pop standards meant to range back to his childhood and family home before his older brother drowned in the bath when Chilton was six. The album opens with a strong rendition of “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying”, featuring a moody Chilton, a magnificent saxophone solo, and a complimentary flute backing his vocals. It’s the perfect introduction to illustrate Chilton’s lifelong influences and range from pop standards through rock ‘n’ roll, blues, and punk. Here the songs are clean and Chilton’s vocals soft. His performances refined even if hints of his unique guitar style appear in flashes.
Like the opener, follow-up tracks feature a moody Chilton but offer further insight into his love of music, and his vocals often seemingly compete with the instrumentation represented in his guitar work and the band backing him on these tracks. On “My Baby Just Care for Me”, his vocals compete with guitar for emphasis in the performance and ultimately lose to a stellar solo that hints beyond this cover of a pop classic toward Chilton’s musicianship and legend. Covers of “Save Your Love for Me” and “Let’s Get Lost” incorporate similar dynamics, while saxophone dominates resoundingly on “There Will Never Be Another You” and “That Old Feeling”. Piano accompaniment is strong across the album, too, a perfect example fully behind Chilton’s vocals and a saxophone solo on penultimate track “Time After Time”. Chilton’s vocals don’t always measure up though, the vocals on “Look for the Silver Lining” strain, yet his heart and the intent is evident despite that quality.
An element of Songs from Robin Hood Lane hard to dismiss is its brevity. A majority of tracks clock in much under three minutes, and when Chilton and his band bring you into a cool groove, it feels like they do nothing more than leave you wanting more from the track, and the album in the end. “Let’s Get Lost” is a specific illustration of wanting more from Chilton and the band in the track: at two minutes it is over and in listening it’s not abrupt, but it’s brief. Other tracks like “Like Someone In Love” fade out precisely, but it still feels too soon.
Both “All of You” and “What Was” are short and the acoustic structure in the songs are unlike more polished band tracks. These two songs reveal the brevity of this compilation too clearly. Yet, while not as strong as other tracks across the album, both manage to represent the concept well. The compilation of tracks to build Songs from Robin Hood Lane becomes clearer as the album progresses, and instrumental tracks like “Frame for the Blues” fill out the concept. There’s no doubt the tracks fit together stylistically, but From Memphis to New Orleans proves better when considered as a complete album to document Chilton’s career in these moments.
The two new compilations prove beneficial to tracking Chilton’s musical excursions from 1987’s High Priest to Clichés (1993) and A Man Called Destruction (1995, and reissued in 2017). Truly, the albums additionally prove crucial as links from his career leading Big Star, both in the 1970s and in its regrouped form in the 1990s. As new collections for Chilton’s career, the production and quality of these releases are admirable. No decay in style or recording quality is apparent in the approach, mastering, or compilation by Bar/None Records.
Altogether these albums are worthwhile and vital for Chilton’s fans and those interested in exploring the relevance of his legacy to so many musicians that emerged in the 1980s: from R.E.M. to the Bangles. Both albums are also critical in presenting a laid back Chilton that transitioned from “self-exile” in New Orleans to his work touring and recording in the late 1980s and 1990s, often confronting his own renown and challenging his legacy. From Memphis to New Orleans and Songs from Robin Hood Lane achieve that well. Chilton is bare and upfront – but in a recording style, his vocals are mixed in front. Taken together, both albums and Bar/None’s careful composition of tracks weave a narrative that brings out-of-print tracks and unreleased music together to compliments the legacy of Chilton by Chilton as only he could uniquely deliver.