Robert Christgau on Alex Chilton's Fragile Love Songs
The Dean of American Rock Critics reviews three records from the late Big Star singer, including a new 15-track compilation, ' From Memphis To New Orleans.'
The self-proclaimed "Dean of American Rock Critics," Robert Christgau was one of the pioneers of music criticism as we know it—the music editor of the Village Voice from 1974 to 1985 and its chief music critic for several decades after that. At the Voice he created both the annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll and his monthly Consumer Guides. Christgau was one of the first critics to write about hip-hop and the only one to review Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water with one word: "Melodic." He taught at New York University between 1990 and 2016, and has published six books, including his 2015 memoir Going Into the City . A seventh, Is It Still Good to Ya?: Fifty Years of Rock Criticism 1967-2017, is now available from Duke University Press. Every Friday we run Expert Witness, the weekly version of the Consumer Guide he launched in 2010. To find out more, read his welcome post; for almost five decades of critical reviews, check out his regularly updated website.
Alex Chilton: From Memphis to New Orleans (Bar/None) A cranky and eclectic guy of limited stick-to-itiveness, the teen Box Top and ironic Big Star's signature format as a solo artist was the EP. His great album post-Big Star, mostly recorded before he left his native Memphis for New Orleans in 1982, is the 19-track 1991 Rhino compilation 19 Years, dominated by but hardly limited to obsessive, off-kilter, achingly fragile sex/love songs with titles like "Kanga Roo," "Bangkok," and "Holocaust." Yet 28 years later Bar/None's alt-pop major domo Glenn Morrow has assembled a terrific 15-track comp that duplicates only five of Rhino's, none of which you'll mind hearing twice—in particular the supernally sardonic 1986 AIDS song "No Sex" and the supernally tender 1987 love/sex song "A Thing for You." Morrow highlights the pop polymath who loved Carla Thomas's "B-A-B-Y," Skeeter Davis's "Let Me Get Close to You," and Ronny & the Daytonas' "GTO." But he's also proud to preserve for CD posterity the lifelong radical's "Guantanamerika" ("Breathing in the mist of the crop duster/Gazing at the stars that have lost their luster") and "Underclass" ("I oughta go to work but I'm not gonna do it"). A MINUS
Alex Chilton: Ocean Club '77 (Norton) Chilton's 1977 NYC residency fell apart before the year was over, but it began on a high—the young punk/alt godfather gigging amongst us, nowhere more mythically than at his February 21-22 engagement at Mickey Ruskin's short-lived, way-downtown successor to Max's Kansas City. I attended the first of these shows, and it was incandescent—jammed, noisy, charged with ambient adrenaline. Even a quality recording like this one can't capture such an up, but you can definitely hear a more raucous, confident, and engaged Chilton than was his quirky norm. The 16-song set leads with the brand new "All of the Time," includes five loud Big Star covers plus a rough-hewn reading of the Box Tops smash "The Letter," introduces Chilton's great nonhit "My Rival," and covers the Ventures, the Beach Boys, the Seeds, and Chuck Berry's "Memphis." Cult history is being made. Of course we were psyched. A MINUS
Big Star: Live on WLIR (Omnivore) With Chilton dead of a heart attack in 2010, what's more striking than it was in 1992, when Rykodisc first released this 1974 studio concert, is that this Chilton is still so young—barely 23. With Chris Bell long gone from the band they created, an uncommon freshness and directness comes front and center on this particular night. Highlight: a poignant, four-song, solo-acoustic interlude that celebrates his conscientious objector brother in "Ballad of El Goodo," looks back at his even younger self in "Thirteen," directs "I'm in Love With a Girl" to "the finest girl in the world," and then does an abrupt right turn into Loudon Wainright's desolately lonesome, predatorily horny "Motel Blues." B PLUS
Alex Chilton: Songs From Robin Hood Lane (Bar/None) With jazz piano sunk deep in his raising, Chilton was a Chet Baker fan by age seven, but he never did pop standards truer than by his guitar-strumming self on 1992's long-lost Clichés—certainly not with jazz-lite combos dominated by a David Bowie saxman ("My Baby Just Cares for Me," "Let's Get Lost") *