Alex Chilton had an on-again-off-again relationship with accessibility. His earliest hits with the Box Tops, and his initial work with Big Star were tightly produced and memorably tuneful records that were easy on the ears. But his third album with Big Star and several of his solo releases seemed to be deliberately challenging. While some fans are enervated by the search for charm among the controlled chaos, others would favor the label “masterpiece” over “hot mess.” By the time of 1987’s High Priest, Chilton had begun to lean heavily on an eccentric catalog of R&B and pop covers, culminating in 1993’s solo acoustic all-covers album, Cliches. 1995’s A Man Called Destruction picks up the idiosyncratic song selection and adds a band performance to a mix that feels less ironic than the crooning that came before.
There may still be a knowing wink in covering Danny Pearson’s “What’s Your Sign?,” but Chilton’s fascination with astrology is well known, and the affection for the song heard in his voice is clear. Placing he Italian rockabilly number “Il Ribelle” alongside Crescent City staples, and sandwiching a falsetto-laced cover of Jan & Dean’s “New Girl in School” between two hard-R&B originals may cause a bit of listener whiplash, it suggests the jumble of influences that seeded Chilton’s musical genius. Omnivore’s 2017 reissue adds seven bonus tracks to the albums original dozen, including alternates, an off-the-cuff take on Clarence “Frogman” Henry’s “(I Don’t Know Why) But I Do” and several otherwise unreleased originals, including the memorable “Give It to Me Baby” and the jam-ready “You’re My Favorite.”
Recording in Memphis for Ardent, Chilton assembled a three-piece horn section of veterans Jim Spake and William “Nokie” Taylor, and newcomer Jim Spake. Spake was given the task of working out horn charts ahead of time. Chilton drew in his regular bassist Ron Easley, and two of his road drummers, alongside the organ playing of 22-year-old Al Gamble and Peabody Hotel pianist Bob Marbach. It was a surprising amount of intention for a Chilton session, and though the bonus tracks show some improvisation and in-studio development, Chilton came prepared with his songs ready to go. The results swing without devolving into loose ends, and Chilton sounds at ease with his material, band, guitar playing and singing, resulting in a session that wasn’t subject to the usual deconstruction. [©2017 Hyperbolium]